Picture of Pastor Carlson

Sermon delivered December 17, 2005 by Pastor Paul Carlson

McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church

McDonald, Tennessee

Biblical quotations are from the New King James Version, NKJV, unless otherwise noted. Divine pronouns and titles are capitalized.

The First Gift

(RealAudio Version available)

A little girl had been to a revival. And happily converted, she came home laughing and singing, feeling so light and full of joy.

“O Grandpa,” she cried, rushing into the room where the old man sat, “I have got religion! I have got religion!” He took her by the shoulders and set her down hard on a chair. “You don’t know what religion is. People don’t shout and skip when they have religion. Now, sit still.”

The child sat there a while, then crept away, all the joy and gladness gone. She went and climbed on the fence, where she went each day to feed sugar to an old donkey. The old donkey put his head up, and as she stroked his face she said pityingly: “Poor old donkey! Poor old donkey! You have got religion -I know you have; your face is long, just like Grandpa’s.” [Signs of the Times, May 25, 1904]

An unknown author wrote about the truth of this matter. Quoted in the June 18, 1896 Signs of the Times, it says: “If you haven’t enough religion to make anyone else happy, it is not surprising that you are not happy yourself.”

As we celebrate Christmas this year, we realize that many are confused as to what the true source of happiness is and what genuine religion is. Of course, not long from now, many people are going to be exchanging gifts that were patiently or impatiently, secretly or not so secretly, bought, wrapped and placed under beautifully decorated evergreen trees. But today we must consider where true happiness and true religion comes from. It is the message of the N.T. and of Christ’s birth that brings us very close to that source.

Come with me as we read the gospel story in Matthew 2. We’ll look at Matthew 2:7-11. Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Some have wondered whether those gifts from the wise men from the East were the first Christmas gifts. Although churches around the world celebrate the nativity scene with the three wise men, the birth of Jesus was actually quite a while before. And so the first gift took place before even the wise men gave their gifts. And that gift was not money…nor gold…nor anything material. But why is that significant? What is the meaning of Christ coming here to this earth? Why would His coming be such a great gift? The answer must lie in who Christ is before we can appreciate what He did.

Who was Christ? Christ is perhaps described the most majestically in Isaiah 9:6 which tells us that Christ is Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Jesus referred to Himself in John 17: ...O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. So Christ was pretty important before humans ever knew Him as the Anointed One, the Messiah. Jesus was the One who was with the Father from the days of eternity. He was the “image of God,” the image of God’s greatness and majesty, “the outshining of His glory.”

In Matthew 1:23 we read that the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel…God with us. That means that Jesus is nothing less than God Himself. Even from the writings of Paul it is clear that Jesus was God. Look up these passages with me, if you will:

Hebrews 1:8, But to the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.’

Philippians 2:5, 6, Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God.

Colossians 1:16, For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible.... Verses 13 and 14 go on to tell us that that “Him” is Christ. Christ is the Creator God.

So there’s a good reason the Bible associates with Jesus that special name, Immanuel—God with us. He is Himself God. So that is who Jesus is.

And what did Christ do? We all know that Christ became a human. But let’s try to appreciate the significance of that. Why was that so special? It’s because Jesus stooped so low. He exchanged the throne of heaven for a feeding trough. He exchanged the companionship of adoring angels for the beasts of the stall. Most of all, He demonstrated, for the record, that God is not ashamed to associate with fallen, sinful humanity.

And He did that so we would have a chance to understand and know what God is like. As Ellen White has so beautifully stated, “The only way in which he could set and keep men right was to make himself visible and familiar to [our] eyes.” [God Made Manifest in Christ, Signs of the Times, January 20, 1890]

But think of the significance of what it would be like for God to come here as He did. God the Creator became the created, a creature. It would have been an almost infinite humiliation for the Son of God to take man’s nature, even when Adam stood in his innocence. But Jesus became a human when the race had been weakened by thousands of years of sin. How can we even begin appreciate what Jesus did?

The college student’s name was Bill. The story is a familiar one, but I love it nonetheless. Bill had wild hair, wore a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans and no shoes. This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He was kind of esoteric and very, very bright. And he became a Christian while attending college.

Across the street from the campus was a church, the members of which were well dressed and very conservative. They wanted to develop a ministry to the students, however, but were not sure how to go about it. One day Bill decided to visit that church. He walked in wearing his jeans, T-shirt, wild hair, and no shoes and started walking down the center aisle, looking for a place to sit.

The church was completely packed, and he couldn’t find a seat. And the members looked a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Bill got closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized that there were no seats left, he just sat down on the carpet. Of course, by that time the members were really uptight; tension filled the air. Then, from the back of the church, a deacon slowly made his way toward Bill.

Then in his eighties, this deacon had silver gray hair, a three piece suit, and a pocket watch. He was a godly man, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. He walked with a cane, and as he headed toward Bill all the members were saying to themselves, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and background to understand a college kid on the floor?” It took a long time for the old man to get down the aisle. All eyes were focused on him. The church was utterly silent. The minister couldn’t even begin preaching until the deacon did what he had to do. When he reached the front, the congregation watched as he, with great difficulty, lowered himself and sat down next to Bill so he wouldn’t be alone.

When the minister gained control of himself, he said, “What I’m about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.” [Signs of the Times, November 1999]

That elderly gentleman knew the meaning of following the example of Christ’s incarnation. God Himself came to be one of us, to be near us and to sit right next to us so we wouldn’t be alone. But that comparison can’t begin to communicate the infinite sacrifice in just coming to this earth. Everything connected with His life, even the little things that Jesus had to put up with as a human, was a great sacrifice. Imagine with me what it would be like for God just to be a baby.

All of this suggests very powerfully for us just how humble the God of the universe is. Furthermore, not only did Jesus have to be weak and helpless at first, but as He grew He would be subjected to a whole range of inconveniences since He was still the Son of God. He would have to go through the test of ultimate hunger. Forced to make a choice between His natural craving for food and His reliance and submission to the Father. None of us have to go to the extremes of hunger that Jesus did during that test in the wilderness. And He would have to deal with people who had no faith, no respect for Him, no love for God and who had only rejection and hatred for Him. Furthermore He would take upon Himself the consequences of the sins of every human, as if He were the worst sinner in the world. He would be utterly alone, forsaken and rejected, given up by God. Unless we realize the significance of what Jesus’ did, our own celebration of Christmas will be vain, meaningless, and dead.

As we celebrate this holiday season, let’s remember God’s love and goodness. As we exchange gifts, let’s remember that God has already given us the first and greatest gift possible. He has given us Himself!

So as we exchange gifts, let’s remember to show our gratitude to God in some meaningful way. To avoid being completely absorbed in the materialism of today. And to set aside some attention, some money, some time—gifts for God or His people—in gratitude to Him for what He has done. And realize most of all that Jesus wants to have room in our crowded lives and in our crowded hearts. After all, if Jesus could leave His throne, couldn’t we provide a place for Him in our lives?

Hymn of Praise: #142, Angels We Have Heard on High
Scripture: Responsive Reading #731
Hymn of Response: #140, Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne

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