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Unopened Christmas gifts

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12

I have always been jealous of those who have an easier time decorating for Christmas than I do. For instance, a friend in Atlanta had a closet built in his new house specifically for his artificial Christmas tree. He put the tree on rollers, then glued on lights and ornaments and tinsel. Each Christmas he rolls it from the closet and plugs it in. Each New Year he unplugs it and rolls it back into its closet. I know that coveting is forbidden, but it’s hard.

This week I heard a new angle. A friend in our church tells me that his family hates to wrap presents. So they wrapped up some empty boxes and each year set them under the tree. The same boxes, year after year. Then on Christmas Day they open their unwrapped presents, saving all the time and hassle of dealing with shredded paper and sticky tape and such. Again I’m coveting.

I can picture unopened empty boxes. But I cannot imagine unopened boxes with gifts inside. Presents our family and friends chose and bought and wrapped for us, stashed in the attic unopened because it’s too much trouble to unwrap them.

It’s typical during the Christmas season to hear a sermon which deals with the presents we can give Jesus for his birthday–faith, commitment, and the like. It is less common to think about the birthday presents he wants to give to us. But that’s his message to us this morning.

Jesus has given us some very specific, very valuable presents. If we leave them unopened in the Sanctuary today, we miss all that he came to give. If we open his presents this morning, we will experience his transforming presence and leave with his peace, power, and joy. So, how do we unwrap the presents Jesus came at Christmas to give?

Either God is king . . .

“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea” (v. 1). John “lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80). This was the wilderness area around the Dead Sea, honeycombed with caves. Here individuals and small communities lived apart from society, separated to the service of God.

His message to the nation was clear, and crucial: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (v. 2). The “kingdom of God” is the place where God is king. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

The kingdom of God is the central theme of Scripture. In Genesis, the King creates his kingdom. In Revelation, he returns to rule his kingdom forever. Jesus came to announce that the king has come: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).

Why must we “repent” to enter this kingdom? To “repent” is to change. Theologians define the word as a “change of mind which results in a change of life.” It means to make a U-turn, to go a different direction. In this case, to stop being king of our lives and make God king instead.

There can be only one king in a kingdom, one ruler in a realm. If he is to be our king, we cannot be king any longer. We must abdicate the throne. We must stop serving ourselves and start serving him. We must stop making our own plans and asking God to bless them, and start following his plans and purposes for our lives. We must climb down from the throne and crown him the King of our souls and lives.

You see, a king owns everything in the kingdom. This is his church, not ours. These are his pews, not ours. This is his Bible and his suit, not mine. You live in his house and drive his car. You eat his food and breathe his air. Everything you have is his. You are simply managing his possessions until the time when he comes to claim them again.

And so, to repent and enter the kingdom of God is to submit to him as the King of Monday as well as Sunday, the money we keep as well as the money we give, our private relationships as well as our public religion. It is to surrender to him all that we have and are.

How is this an Advent message? Because this is how we “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (v. 3).

When important people were due to visit a city, the residents went out to improve the roads for them. Boulders had to be pulled out of the way; ravines and elevations made during the rainy season had to be leveled. The more important the visitor, the greater the preparations for his coming.

This King will not come unless he is welcome. He will not go where he is not invited. He stands at the door and knocks–if we open the door, he will come in and stay with us (Revelation 3:20). He will bring us the abundant life he came to give. He will make his presence real in our hearts and souls. He will be our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father, our Prince of Peace. And it will be “Joy to the world–the Lord has come.”

Conversely, we can have Christmas without repentance, but we cannot have Advent. We can have holidays, but not holy days. We can observe Jesus’ birth, but we cannot experience it. We can be grateful that he entered the human race, but we will miss his presence in our hearts and souls today. We will return his gift of abundant life unopened. And soon Christmas will be done.

. . . or you are

Tragically, that is our likely response to John’s message. It is human nature to want to be our own king of our own Kingdom. Satan’s chief temptation is still the same: “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5).

John Claypool, the famous and insightful preacher, spoke for most of us: “People used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was shrewd enough to fashion my answer according to what I thought they wanted to hear. For some it was a policeman, for others a fireman or a preacher. However, in my own heart of hearts, I had my own private fantasy that I never dared to share with anyone. Do you know what it was? I am telling you the gospel truth: I wanted to be president of the world” (The Preaching Event 64, italics his).

As children want an allowance from their parents so they can have money of their own; as prodigals want their part of the inheritance to spend as they wish; so we all want to be in charge of our lives. We want God to meet our needs and bless our plans. We want to be king of our Kingdom.

And religion doesn’t help matters. In fact, it often makes things worse.

The Pharisees were the holiest people in Israel, 6,000 men who were devoted completely to living by every detail of the Law. The Sadducees were the religious authorities of the day–the high priest and those who helped him lead the nation. Think of Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II, and you’ll have a sense of the veneration in which the nation held these people. Yet they rejected the message of John and the Messiah he predicted. They returned the gifts of Christmas unopened.

It is a strange and tragic fact that the more religious we are, the less likely we are to repent of our sins and submit to God as our King.

The religious authorities tried to have Luther killed; they rejected Calvin; they massacred Anabaptists by the thousands; they exiled Baptists to the colonies; they rejected Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening; they ridiculed Billy Graham when he began his crusades.

When we are successful in religion, we almost inevitably become self-reliant spiritually. We know how to run our church, or teach our class, or study and pray. We know how to serve the Lord. We can build his Kingdom for him, expecting his gratitude for our good work.

But you and I cannot convict a single person of a single sin. We cannot heal a single home or restore a single marriage. We can do nothing that matters for eternity. When last did you submit your life and religion to God as your King? Conversely, when last did you lead a lost person to Jesus? A saved person closer to him? When last did the Spirit use you for eternal significance? How is his Kingdom larger and stronger because of you?

Do you need to repent so that the kingdom can come into your heart and church today? So Jesus can give you his abundant and joyful life? So God can use your life to do eternal things? So you can have the peace and power of the Spirit in your soul? So you can receive all that the King of Kings gives to his subjects?

Conclusion

There is wonderful good news in John’s message and this day’s worship: all who will make God their King, can. The Bible says that “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (vs. 5-6).

Tax collectors and prostitutes, pagans and demoniacs–it makes no difference to God. Where you’ve been doesn’t matter–only where you’re going. He is ready to forgive every sin you’ll confess and make your life significant in his Kingdom. If only you’ll make him your King.

This is how it has been all through Christian history.

Peter and Paul are the two best-known leaders in apostolic history. Yet one denied Jesus three times, and the other did all he could to murder Christians and exterminate their movement.

Justin the Martyr was a pagan philosopher before he became the most effective apologist of early Christian history.

Augustine was a pagan philosopher and lawyer, living with his girlfriend and rejecting all sexual morality, when he took up the Scriptures and was glorious transformed.

Thomas Aquinas was known as the “dumb ox” in school before becoming the most significant theologian of the medieval church.

Martin Luther was an obscure, guilt-plagued monk in a tiny village before becoming the leader of the Reformation.

Billy Graham is today the best-known Christian in the world, but no one would have predicted such success for him as a boy.

Growing up on a dairy farm in North Carolina, he was more known for mischief than spirituality. His conversion during a summer revival made no headlines in anyone’s newspaper. He went to Bible college, but not seminary. He pastored only one small church before beginning his evangelistic ministry.

The back cover of his autobiography contains these words: “I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is to ask, ‘Why me, Lord? Why did You choose a farmboy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what You were doing in the latter half of the twentieth century?’ I have thought about that question a great deal, but I know also that only God knows the answer” (Just As I Am).

I think Billy Graham’s wife knows the answer. Last spring, Janet and I were privileged to visit the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois. There we walked with amazement through displays documenting the decades of Dr. Graham’s global evangelism ministry. There were quotes from statesmen, presidents, and kings the world over. But the quote which most struck us came from his wife. Ruth Bell Graham said of her husband, “He was a man in a hurry who wanted to please God more than any man I’d ever met! . . . He stood head and shoulders above all the others because of the depth of his commitment to Jesus Christ. I knew I would always be second to God in his life. But what better place to be!”

I was privileged to meet Billy Graham personally a few years ago when I was part of the team which invited him to Dallas for his last Mission here. I will never forget the scene.

He was preaching in Fresno, California, at the university stadium there. He was seated in a converted locker room beneath the stadium, waiting to go onto the stage. He had broken a bone in his foot the night before, and had his injured foot in a walking cast propped up on a coffee table. His sermon notes were in his lap. He was bowed over them in study and prayer when our group entered the room.

I have a treasured picture which was taken of the moment when I bent over to shake his hand. I have never witnessed eyes like those–he looked into my heart and soul. I sensed absolute holiness. I felt that I was in the very presence of Jesus Christ. All because this “farmboy from North Carolina” was completely surrendered to Jesus. All because he opened the gift of Christmas given to him by his Lord and Master. I resolved that day to belong to Jesus as he belongs to Jesus. I invite you to join me in that resolve this morning.

There’s only one throne in your heart. Who is seated on it today?