Simple Christmas – God Loved…So He Gave

This year, Echo has been talking about “simplifying” Christmas – not to take the fun away, but to make sure what matters most gets the most attention.
Simple = clear. Simple ≠ excess. Simple ≠ stress. Simple ≠ clutter.

This is about being intentional, doing Christmas on purpose. This Christmas, what we want to do at DCC and in Echo is enter the true Christmas story.

Last Sunday, we finished the series talking about the essence of the Christmas story. John 3:16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” I know this is not a Christmas passage: there is no nativity; there are no Christmas carols about this verse. But this verse is about the incarnation. The spirit of Advent is really wrapped up in this short verse. God Loved, so God Gave.

1. God Loved the world. Even the messed up fallen world that is full of selfish people and brokenness. He loved us. He loved us in our mess of imperfection and faults. Even with the selfishness we display this time of year, driven to accumulate MORE, he loves us. He loved little girls obsessed with pillow pets. He loved teenage boys with pornography problems. He loved middle school girls that gossip and create drama. Sometimes talking about God’s love makes people imagine that God is indulgent and just gushes on us, like he is happy no matter what. We think something like: “Because God loves me, it means he is okay with me no matter what dysfunction is in my life.” This isn’t quite right. The reality of God’s love means that he feels compelled to rescue us from our brokenness. God’s love motivates him to heal and bring life like a doctor’s compassion motivates him to move toward sick people to make them well. You wouldn’t think that a doctor that did nothing to heal a sick person was compassionate, no matter how nice and indulgent they were. The same is true for God – he loves us, so he cannot allow us to stay as we are. So he acts on his love, and he sends Jesus.

2. God Gave His Son. God’s response to love he felt for the world was to give His Son. He didn’t send a card, or a necktie, or a video game. He didn’t give a fruitcake or some cookies. He gave something precious. God gave the most precious and valuable gift ever conceived. For so long, people have thought about ways to give to God, to satisfy or appease the higher power. Thinking about the Biblical story, what is God looking for? People have thought that the answer is ritual or material or financial. People have tried to give sacrifices and religious activities. What would it mean to respond in love like God responded in love? When God loved us, he gave His son to a broken world.

What if the gift God wants this Christmas is for us to keep doing likewise? What if we are supposed to give ourselves to a broken world? When God gave His Son He gave himself. This is the mystery and beauty of the Trinity. The Father is the Son and is the Spirit. This is the incarnation – where God gave himself. The best gifts then are going to be those that follow in this pattern. The best gift you can give this Christmas is yourself. This sounds right, and it is the Spirit of Advent. God Loved, and so God Gave. We love God, so we Give. This is the response of everyone when their eyes are opened to just how much God gave us. God gave us his Son, God gave us the Kingdom – and so we GIVE. We give something precious and valuable to us to a world that needs help.

This is what it ultimately means to enter the story of Christmas – to follow God’s example in self-giving. Because God gave Jesus, we have everything we need. When you learn to see the world and your situation through the eyes of God’s economy, you discover what already have. The system of our culture always amplifies what we don’t have, but God’s Kingdom gives us eyes to see the enormous amount we do have. Here is the truth: you don’t need anything you don’t already have. You do not need more perfume, another electronic gadget, another video game, or a better cell phone. Our culture tells us these lies and we believe it. The truth is, none of that stuff will make us happy – AND it is entirely possible to shift your perspective and be happy with what you already have! With the eyes of the Kingdom, you see your abundance, and it makes you content and generous.

The only adequate response to blessing and abundance is to figure out how to give it away. The right response to the gift of God is to GIVE MORE. Look at this passage: Luke 12:32-34- “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This warning follows the story of the rich fool and teaching from Jesus about being content and trusting in God and not worrying about material things. Jesus is reminding people that are focused on material things and the false security they offer that such worry is senseless. “Your father has been please to give you the Kingdom,” what more could you ever need? The response that Jesus sees as natural might surprise us. Jesus teaches that when you realize how much God has blessed you and you recognize what you have been given, you will respond by “selling your possessions and giving to the poor.” You will overflow with generosity! This is one of the most basic teachings of the Bible and one of the deepest laws of God’s Kingdom: you have been blessed to be a blessing to others!

Above Reproach

In our current series, Echo High School has been walking through the book of Nehemiah. Last week we came to a point in the narrative that is particularly important right now. I shared with our students a painful story of how leaders we love and trusted deeply ended their ministry career in moral failure, and the devastating effect it had on so many people. It wasn’t shared to point fingers or to cast stones, but just as a warning and word of caution: moral authority takes a very long time to build and only a moment to destroy.

Nehemiah 6:1-16 – Nehmiah’s opponents tried to stop the construction of the wall by threatening violence. It didn’t work. The wall is almost completed, and so the opponents change their tactics: they try to assault the character of Nehemiah, attempting to ruin his reputation and damage his influence with the king, with the nobles, and even with God. It is an attack of false statements, slander, and blackmail. They threaten to accuse him of treason. They threaten him with assassination in hopes he will go into hiding. They hire a false prophet to intimidate him. Nehemiah survives this attack because he is a person of Integrity. You either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, eventually everyone will know about it. Nehemiah’s integrity puts him in a place to call their bluffs and refuse to play their games. This kind of response is only possible for those with nothing to hide. His integrity makes him above reproach – think about how rare it is to find someone in our world that is “scandal proof.” How freeing it would be to live with nothing to hide – no secrets that could tarnish your reputation or ruin your credibility. This is what Integrity is all about. If there is no false accusation that can possibly stick, you don’t need to fear slander. This story is remarkable because there is no deceit, no cover up, no counterplots, and no insincerity. This is totally different than the modern political scene! He refuses to be intimidated and answers their charges with open and direct statements. I love Nehemiah’s response in verse 8: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” We talked out with our students what it means to be a person of Integrity.

First, the price of integrity is doing more than just enough. Sometimes people mistake an attitude of “good enough” for integrity, but they are not the same thing. Integrity goes above and beyond expectations – it takes the high road even at personal cost. It never asks: “what is enough to get by?”…it asks: “how can I exceed the standard?” Here is a hard lesson about leadership, but you need to understand it if you hope to have influence. When it comes to leadership: “others may, you may not.” Others may, you may not. I often have conversations with teens about defining what exactly is a sin. What is really being asked is “how close to the line can I get without crossing it?” This is a very common attitude but it is not the attitude of integrity. “Enough” is o.k. for many, this is what makes it average. When you find someone that gives so much more than enough, it is remarkable. The exceptional will demonstrate a level of integrity that will win them influence. Leadership hinges on this principle. You can be skilled and talented and smart, but your influence can very easily be eroded by a lack of character. It takes a long time to build trust, but only a moment to destroy it. It means there is a price to pay if you want true influence. Let me show you what I am talking about from Nehemiah’s life, just to give you a window into what kind of guy he is.

Nehemiah 5:6-13 – The situation here is one of recession. The people of Jerusalem were such a mess financially, they had to take loans from people (they called them Gentiles) outside Jerusalem from surrounding nations at very high interest. The interest was so high they could not afford to pay back the loans. (Really? What do we know about that!) This causes them to give up property and land and even their wives and children as collateral. The people of Jerusalem had become slaves again to outsiders! Nehemiah shows up casting vision to rebuild the walls, and he discovers they cannot give themselves to this work because they are so busy working to pay off their debts. The government is in shambles, and the previous governors were actually a part of this problem. They took their salary, and then they used their position to take additional money and food and land. Property values have dropped and the Nobles are taking advantage of others’ hardship and turning a quick profit on the low market prices. Nehemiah comes in and he and his people offer a bailout – a financial package that tries to end the crisis. He gives his own money to buy off these loans, and he doesn’t charge interest. Not long after, Nehemiah discovers that the Jewish Nobles have again loaned the poorer people money at high interest rates and they are in the same exact crisis again! Charging interest to another Jew is against the law of that time. The people are back in debt and the crisis is back! Nehemiah is TICKED OFF. He confronts to the nobles and condemns this practice: “What you are doing is not right!” Loan to them, but stop charging interest! The interest is exploiting these people. You are taking from them the collateral they put up on loans you know they cannot repay! Stop taking advantage of your own people! He wanted to reform this practice of injustice. He charges them to give back the lands and property and money of the people. Here is the crazy thing: they agree with him without a fight. Why does this go so easy? Why can he come in and demand something so hard of them and they agree?

It is because the payoff of integrity is “moral authority.”
Nehemiah 5:14-18 – Nehemiah’s seemingly impossible ask works because he has moral authority. They trust him. He explains in v. 14. Now, understand that it might have been enough for Nehemiah to just not be corrupt and to take his fair share and no more. “Enough” is not enough for Nehemiah, because he wants to demonstrate moral authority. “Out of reverence for God I did not act this way.” He actually surrendered his salary for 12 years to see his country out of a recession. He could have taken advantage of the low market to buy up land and increase his wealth, but he didn’t. As a result, the nobles followed him. They followed not just his words, but his example. A pastor named Andy Stanley said: “Moral authority is total alignment between your creed and your deeds.” It means you do what you say. It means you are a person of your word and are trustworthy. Nehemiah motivates the rich to care for the poor – loan to them without charging interest. They were inspired to be generous because he was generous himself. Nehemiah doesn’t lead because they call him governor; he leads because he has moral authority. He gives himself to the building of the wall and to seeing his country out of the crisis. He doesn’t sit back with a cushy and luxurious job, enjoying the perks of his position. Instead, at personal cost he leverages his wealth for others. Because the demands on the people were heavy, he didn’t take what was rightfully his. He did exactly what he was asking others to do and more. The nobles took him seriously because he had earned their respect and trust by going above and beyond. He could stand in front of the rich and powerful and lead them because for 12 years he led by example, walking his talk. He won a level of influence you cannot be given with a title.

If you want to lead with moral authority, you have to be willing to do more than you expect or require from others. If people see a discrepancy between what they hear us saying and what they see us doing, we lose the ability to influence them. Are you willing to do more than other people think is enough? Keep this in mind – this level of authority takes a very long time to build, but just a moment to destroy. Don’t sell your integrity cheaply, because it is very costly!

For discussion:
*Talk about with your teen about some leaders you know whose influence was damaged by scandal or a lack of integrity. How can our choices today guide us away from a similar fate?
*Talk about the dangers of the digital age we live in and how this forces a level of accountability on people. What used to be private can easily become public on youtube or facebook. A bad choice can go viral and be viewed by thousands. How can we protect our reputations and live with integrity online?

Simple Christmas?

This commercial says SO much about where our culture is during Christmas. Take 30 seconds to watch it and be amazed. The irony in the tagline is comical: “In a time where it is easy to go overboard, Acura invites you to be smarter and over-save.” Yes, that’s right, over-save by buying a vehicle with an MSRP of $42,930 – $54,455.

There seems to be two different Christmas stories fighting for our attention. One is the story of Jesus birth, where God became human and entered our mess to redeem and restore what was broken by sin. This story is called “the Gospel” because it is such good news. The other story often distracts from the true story – the one where people are rushing around from shopping mall to shopping mall, full of tension and anxiety about material things. Do I have the right gifts? Can I buy enough gifts? What can we get Grandpa? Maybe Christmas is more about chaos and mass consumerism and less about Jesus entering our world? Think about the chaos of “black Friday.” Each year, the day after Thanksgiving, people wake up at 3am to wait in line outside of stores and shopping malls to get the best deals on stuff so they can give it to people to communicate love. This is a love story, but it is a love story about a different god, one of stuff. The truth is: black Friday is a worship event…but is it the right worship event? “Advent” is the word the church uses to refer to the season of Christmas, which comes from a Latin word (adventus [Greek: parousia]) which means “coming.” It is a celebration of the coming of Christ. The event of Jesus coming to earth changed the world, and it can change it still. What Echo is talking about this season is “simplifying” Christmas – not to take the fun away, but to make sure what matters most gets the most attention.

Simple = clear.
Simple ≠ excess.
Simple ≠ stress.
Simple ≠ clutter.

This is about being intentional, doing Christmas on purpose. This Christmas, what we want to do at DCC and in Echo is enter the true Christmas story.

The birth of Jesus is an event of cataclysmic scale that should be celebrated with worship and awe, yet we have found billions of ways to make Christmas about us. Why does no one ask” “what are you giving this year?” instead of “What are you asking for?” or “What are you getting?” Why do we make lists of what we want long before the holiday while we wait to the last minute to find gifts for others? The answer is that Christmas is all about ME. This is a dangerous reality for teens, because they naturally occupy the center of the universe already. The danger is that they miss a truth of vital importance: Jesus has come into the world, and His coming demands a worshipful response!

What story does your family’s celebration tell about Christmas? I don’t mean something tacky, like t-shirt slogans or street corner preaching. I do think that our worship should tell the story of the coming of Christ. By that I mean that our heart and our attitude should be focused on Jesus and not on the nonsense of our culture. I am not talking about the “Christmas Spirit” (or whatever that phrase means). I am talking about returning our eyes, our hearts, and our attention to the coming of Jesus.

How do we do this? I know what you are thinking: I saw that Christmas movie. We all have. We all know what the next 30 days will be about. We will see about a dozen movies and hear the same 25 songs over and over again. There is nothing unexpected about the message either. It is the same every year: “Don’t be a Scrooge or a Grinch. Believe in Santa, or all the reindeer will die. The best way to spread Christmas cheer is for singing loud for all to hear. If you get a BB gun for Christmas, you will shoot your eye out. Don’t be bad or ninjas will storm the North Pole and destroy all the toys…” What I think God is looking for is the sense of wonder and gratitude.

So this season, celebrate. Have fun. Give gifts. But celebrate for the right reasons and give gifts that mean something, not just some thing. Here are some ideas:

*Serve Together as a family. We just did this with our 3 year old, so it is possible for you too!
*Get an Advent Calendar or search online for a list of readings from scripture that follow an advent calendar. Commit to doing this for 8 minutes every night. Even better – make one with your family that you can use for years to come.
*Give your time instead of more stuff. Do something fun together instead of adding another video game to the cabinet.
*Sit down and read the story of the first Christmas from Matthew or Luke’s Gospel as a family. Even if it seems cheesy and your teens act resistant, they might secretly love it. Maybe sneak it in before dinner.
*Give a gift that will bring your family closer, like a game you can all play together. (My personal suggestion is Settlers of Catan!)
*Choose which parties to attend and which activities to do on purpose. Limit the amount of clutter on the calendar for the next month.