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THE GREATEST GIFT (Advent Narrative 6)

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The British Ambassador was in Washington some years back. About fortnight before Christmas a local TV station rang him. ‘Ambassador’ said caller, ‘What would you like for Christmas?’ ‘I shouldn’t dream of accepting anything’ replied the Ambassador. ‘Seriously, we would like to know’ responded the caller, ‘and don’t be stuffy … you have, after all, been very kind to us during the year.’ ‘Oh well, if you absolutely insist’ replied the Ambassador, ‘I would like a small box of crystallised fruits’. The Ambassador thought no more about it until Christmas Eve when he switched on the TV. ‘We have been conducting a small Christmas survey’ said the announcer. ‘We asked three visiting Ambassadors what they would like for Christmas?’ ‘The French Ambassador said: “Peace on earth, greater compassion for human life and understanding, and an end to war and strife!” The German Ambassador said: “A great upsurge in international trade, ensuring growth and prosperity, particular in the underdeveloped countries’. And then we asked the British Ambassador… he said that he would like a small box of crystallised fruits!?’

So … what would you like for Christmas? The story above kind of changes our perspective? In Luke 2:8-11 we have the story of the Greatest Gift of all – the Gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Luke tells us that, following the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem’s manger, a whole host of angelic beings appeared to shepherds caring for flocks of sheep in the region of Bethlehem. The strong probability is that these shepherds were pasturing flocks destined for the temple sacrifices. Flocks were supposed to be kept only in the wilderness and a rabbinic rule said that any animal found between Jerusalem and a spot near Bethlehem must be presumed to be a sacrificial victim.  As a class shepherds had a bad reputation. The nature of their calling kept them from observing the ceremonial law which meant so much to religious people. More regrettable was their unfortunate habit of confusing ‘thine’ with ‘mine’ as they moved about the country. They were considered unreliable and were not allowed to give testimony in the law courts. Nevertheless, it was to such people that God first revealed the good news, the Gospel [v.10]. Understandably they were naturally fearful of this divine visitation … until one of the angels tells them the Good News: ‘Don’t be afraid … I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Saviour – yes, the (promised) Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David’ (v.11). God is no respecter of persons.  The good news was not revealed first to Priests and Pharisees but to despised, even sinful, shepherds. This means that there is hope for even the most hopeless amongst us … because of the Greatest Gift of all from God to his creation, the Gift of his one and only Son!

This is the Greatest Gift of all because it is the Gift of God Incarnate. Prior to his birth an angel appeared to Joseph and told him that the child Mary was about to give birth to was none other than ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:23). When we look at that tiny baby lying in Bethlehem’s manger we need to recognise that this is no ordinary child but none other than God himself come among us in human form! If we want to know what God is like all need to do is look at Jesus! See in him not just as a tiny baby but as a grown man who went about doing good, demonstrating through life and word what God was like and what he wants from each one of us!

This is the Greatest Gift of all because it is the Gift of a Saviour. The angel that came to Joseph spoke of this Special Child having another Name: ‘Jesus … because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). When we look at that tiny baby we need to also recognise that he grew up not just to teach us what God was like, or what God requires of us, but to give his life on Calvary’s cross to remove the barrier of sin that separates us from God and open a new a living way back to God for all who will truly believe on him!

This is the Greatest Gift of all because (as the angels told the shepherds) it is ‘good news that will release great joy into the hearts of people everywhere’ (v.11). The Bible tells us that ‘God desires everyone to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4). Christ’s sacrifice on Cross is  ‘sufficient’ for everyone (although only ‘efficient’ for those who believe). The only limit we place on God’s grace is the limit we set upon it ourselves!

So here we are … celebrating Christ’s birthday … talking about God’s gift to us when we should be talking about giving our gifts to Jesus (after all it is his birthday not ours)? What does he want?

Ludwig von Zinzendorf was an 18th c. wealthy, German Count. He knew the Gospel Story well, but had never made any commitment of his life to Jesus Christ. One day, on a long journey, Zinzendorf stopped off in small town en route and, whilst the horses of his carriage were being changed, he wandered into small museum come art gallery, where he saw a painting (sadly since lost) of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Underneath this painting were the words: ‘This have I done for thee, what hast thou done for me?’ Zinzendorf realised that he had done nothing in response to that which God in Christ had done for him. In that moment, it is said, God broke into his life. He fell to his knees and there and then committed his life to Christ. He went on from that point to use his wealth and position to serve Jesus Christ, not least in establishing the Moravian Church … which was to prove to be so influential in the conversion of both John and Charles Wesley.

So … what does God want from us? What does Jesus want from us? Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) sums it up succinctly in the last verse of her carol:

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him …
Give him my heart.’

Jim Binney

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