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Archive for December, 2011

Well, having already riled up a number of esteemed brethren, let us see if we can keep up the momentum! So, today, class, we shall make our target those (well-meaning) Christians who think that Christmas gift-giving distracts us from the True Meaning of Christmas ™.

You hear it every year, don’t you? We’re warned against the “commercialization” of Christmas and exhorted to reject it so that we can get back to the true Reason for the Season ™. We spend too much money. Shopping for others brings stress and anxiety and hustle and bustle and worry and drives you crazy! Why can’t we just love one another and forget the gifts and just spend time around the fireplace thinking warm thoughts of love and gentleness, sipping hot chocolate, and enjoying some simple, home-made gifts (which are far more meaningful than anything you could possibly buy from one of those greedy merchants at the mall or online)?

That’s the spirit I’m talking about. You’ve heard it, right? Ok.

First, though, let’s acknowledge that there are real sins connected with our celebrations that we need to be mindful of and avoid:
— Do many people spend more than they can afford on gifts and sin by going into unnecessary debt? You betcha.
— Do we have a problem with materialism in our culture? Indeed we do.
— Do we often think that money and things can bring happiness and contentment? Yep.
— Do we fall into the trap of focusing more upon the hassle and the expense of gift-giving than we do upon the privilege of giving? Absolutely.
— Should we spend more time together with loved ones and work on building our relationships and loving one another? Of course.
— Should we remember that there are many people in need of basic necessities and have compassion on them instead of always focusing upon ourselves? Absolutely, we must never forget the needs of those around us — mercy and justice demand it.

But acknowledging all that, the message we often hear gives this impression: “Giving unnecessary and expensive gifts to friends and family is a waste of money. It encourages selfishness, covetousness, materialism and indifference to others and is a great dishonor to God.”

The implication is that one of the solutions to covetousness, selfishness, and materialism is to quit giving gifts and cut back on the size of our celebration — otherwise it’s impossible to avoid these sins.

But is this true? Let me pose another question: If you’re tithing and being generous with the wealth God has given you (remembering those in need), is it wrong to spend your money on gifts and celebration? Is it wrong to give something that is not absolutely necessary for sustaining life? Like a toy rocket ship or truck or a video game, or another pair of shoes, or a new shirt or a hilarious tie? Is it wrong to spend money on special treats and an unusually large dinner? Some of our friends would say, “Yes. Yes it is, absolutely!”

The problem here, however, is that God says, “No. No, it isn’t wrong, absolutely not!” If you’re tithing, being generous, showing compassion to those in need, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with feasting, gift-giving, celebrating, and spending money for these “unnecessary” things.

Indeed, God commanded Israel to do this very thing, right? (Deut. 14:22-27 “You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. 23 And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24 But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, 25 then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.”).

It’s not clear exactly how this was to work, but scholars think that at least four out of every seven years, God expected Israel to do this. And notice: The rule for determining what you obtained with your money was not what you needed but what you desired. And you were not to be concerned about the amount. You were to purchase as much as your tithe allowed. Which, for some, would have amounted to quite a bit of stuff.

It’s impossible to know the average income of the average Israelite, so let’s just put it in terms that we can understand. What if you were to spend a tithe of your income for a celebration? What would my friends think if they heard I spent $3000-4000 for Christmas? Would they be dismayed? Would you? It sounds like gross extravagance, like something that can only lead to evil, right?

But notice why the Lord wanted Israel to do this (v. 23 “that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.”). This extravagant celebration was to teach them to fear Yahweh. That’s the same phrase used to explain why they should read the law publicly every seven years (Deut. 31:10-13).

God puts celebration and feasting on the same level as hearing His Word. Why? In part because the celebration itself was made possible by God’s goodness and generosity. They had something to celebrate with only because God had been generous to them in giving them strength and skill and blessing their labors. And every year when they ate and drank and enjoyed the abundance of good things that they probably couldn’t afford during the rest of the year –- they were reminded of God’s extravagant grace and mercy to them. And the experience of His goodness and generosity would in turn make them generous people. They would fear Him and grow in conformity to Him.

God wasn’t afraid that they would become covetous and materialistic. The covetous man doesn’t have any desire to spend his money for others. The materialist has no regard for the joy he might bring to others with his wealth. This grand celebration was to teach them to see the ugliness of covetousness and materialism and to attack these evils.

And, you know what? A joyful, generous celebration of Christmas (and other feast days) will do the same for us.

Do you see how this works? Our giving is to reflect God’s generosity to us. The man who is always concerned that he’s going to spend a penny more than is absolutely necessary or that he’s going to give more than he needs to give, is not showing the spirit of the Savior. He’s not loving like Jesus loves at all. Rather, we show forth the glory of God by being generous to others and sometimes by being extravagantly generous — just like He is toward us.

God gives us many, many things that are not absolutely necessary for life. He supplies all our needs but then gives us far above all that we can ask or think. And He never worries about spending too much on us. Does His abundance make you spoiled, arrogant, and demanding? Or does it rather humble you and make you ashamed of your selfishness and self-centeredness and pettiness and stinginess?

You see? God doesn’t attack consumerism and materialism by being stingy with His gifts or restricting the number of them because He’s afraid that you will become a selfish pig. Rather, He lavishes His gifts upon you so that you will learn to be like Him.

Christmas is a time when we have the privilege of imitating the gloriously generous, loving God who has given us the most precious of gifts and all other things with Him.

So rejoice, be glad, eat, drink, and be truly merry — for the Lord is good. He has given us His Son . . . and the turkey and the pecan pie and that funny sweater Aunt Suzie thought was “darling” — give thanks and enjoy it all so that you can become like the Lord of love, joy, and gladness.

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Family time

I keep saying that I’m not surprised by anything I hear that Christians have done nowadays — and then just about every week I hear of something that some Christian (or church) has done and I’m flabbergasted. Again.

Apparently, the fact that Christmas falls on Sunday this year has flummoxed a number of churches. One of which put out a video to explain to their congregation the reason why they had changed their normal practice this Sunday. The pastor says, the leadership team was stumped at first. You have to do “something on Christmas” he tells us. But they couldn’t figure out what. So, after a lot of discussion, they came up with the idea of doing . . . . next to nothing. They’re going to leave the church open so that their members can come by and have a time of quiet meditation. There might even be Bible reading and prayer and singing of some Christmas carols, he says, they’re not quite sure how it will all work — but this will, he says, make Christmas “special.”

Nowhere in the video does he indicate that, you know, we might just worship on this Sunday like we do every other Sunday! Worship apparently isn’t “special” enough.

Then I hear that a number of Christians are planning to stay home from worship this Sunday so that they can celebrate Christmas. Yeah. I hope that sounds a tad whacky to you! John Barach makes this point to show the stupidity of this:

Would you skip someone’s birthday party and refuse to come to his house or eat any of his birthday cake and then tell him that you did all of that in order to honor him on his birthday? No? Then why would anyone skip church on Sunday in order to celebrate Christ’s birth?

This is akin to those who say they’re not going to worship in order to “have family time.”

We need to ask the question, “Who is your family?”

Jesus actually had the opportunity to answer this question one day. Remember when He was in Capernaum teaching and healing, he was told that his mother and brothers wanted to speak to him. Jesus used this as an opportunity to give some important instruction (Matt. 12:48-50): “But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” 49 And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus points out that His first and most important family consists of all those who do the will of His father. They all are closer to Him than His own mother and brothers would be if they did not believe and obey. God’s family is our first and most important family. It turns out that the water of baptism is in fact thicker than blood.

Everyone supposedly wants all of us to remember “the reason for the season” but I don’t think a lot of them understand the Reason as well as they think they do. If we are celebrating Christmas because of Jesus’ incarnation then we are acknowledging that His coming and His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reign are the most important things in the world. Nothing is more important that what God has done in and through His Son. And how has God told us chiefly to commemorate His Son’s coming, life, and work?

It’s NOT to be done by forsaking public worship of His Son so that you can spend time with your private family. My first family is not the Wilkins. My first family is not the Hilburns or the Pages or the Thompsons. My first and most important family is my baptismal family and our lives and schedules must reflect this by making worship a priority for the Wilkinses, and the Pages, and the Thompsons, and Hilburns and every other family. Public worship is “family time.”

Don’t make rules for your family that contradict the rules Jesus makes for us. Worship is the most important thing we do for our individual families. The best thing you can ever do for your children is to teach them that there is nothing, nothing, more important than worshiping God with His people on Sunday. If they learn this lesson, your family will be mightily blessed — and they will be blessed because they have learned that our individual families are secondary to the Family of God.

Don’t forsake the worship in some mistaken idea that doing so will help your family more than attending worship with God’s family. It’s just not so.

So, I’ll look forward to seeing you this Sunday.

And, may the Lord grant to you a most merry Christmas!

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