What God Wants For Christmas
December 15, 1996
There are only ten days left until Christmas. Have you done your shopping yet? Be careful, because there are some crazy people out there. Have you heard about this new doll called Tickle Me, Elmo? Every year there seems to be one new item that everyone has to have. A few years ago it was Cabbage Patch Dolls, then it was Nintendo video games. This year it’s Tickle Me, Elmo. The problem is, everyone wants this doll and no one can find it anywhere. Hundreds of people are lining up for hours to get a chance to buy. One store had so many customers and so few dolls that they held a lottery. I heard about one woman who paid $700 for one. That seemed extreme until I heard that someone else paid $2500 for a single doll. A few days ago a reporter interviewed a woman who said another woman threatened to kill her if she tried to buy the last Tickle Me, Elmo. That’s a little over the edge, if you ask me. She’s been drinking a little too much eggnog.
Giving presents is always a problem. If you love someone, you want to make sure you give them something they really want. Ideally, you want to see that look of joyous surprise when they open the gift and even before they say a word, you know it was perfect.
That doesn’t always happen. That’s Carsons and Pennys and Sears and all the rest are going to open bright and early tomorrow morning. Those stores will do a huge business from people bringing back well-intentioned gifts that weren’t quite perfect.
Looking For the Perfect Gift
It’s sad, really. You work so hard to find just the right gift, and then it doesn’t fit …or it isn’t the right color … or it was broken in the box … or they already had one … or the design doesn’t match what they already have … worst of all, it wasn’t what they really wanted.
That’s the worst—to give someone a gift they don’t really want. Nothing makes you feel worse. They unwrap the gift and then there is a short pause—just a microsecond—but in that moment you already know the truth. “Why, it’s beautiful,” they say. But you can see the look in their eyes. You put on a brave front and try again. “Do you really like it?” “Like it? I love it.” But you aren’t fooled. It’s not what they wanted. And drop by drop all the joy drains out of Christmas.
Cologne Made From Poison Ivy
I think we’ve all seen those ads that say, “What do you give the man that has everything?” Usually the answer is something exotic—like cologne made from Poison Ivy or a three-volume History of Nigeria. We all probably know at least one person like that. They have everything you can think of or at least if they don’t have it, you couldn’t afford to give it to them anyway. So you scratch your head and wonder, “What can I give him this year?”
That came to my mind this week as I thought about the question—If I were going to give Jesus a gift for his birthday, what could I give him that he would appreciate? After he is the Creator of all things (Hebrews 1:2) and the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). What do you give someone who not only has everything, but who actually made everything? That’s a tough question.
A Man Called Micah
Is there anything the Lord would like from me this year? What could I give him that would bring a smile to his face?
Luckily, we don’t have to wonder about the answer to those questions. The Lord left his wish list for everyone to read. After all, if you don’t know what to give someone, you should just ask them, “Well, what would you like?”
The answer is found in the little book of Micah. It’s possible you missed it. Maybe you didn’t even know there was a book of Micah. It’s in that section of the Old Testament we call the Minor Prophets—so-called because the book are short not because their messages are unimportant.
Micah is the name of a book of the Bible. It’s also the name of the person who wrote the book. God gave Micah a message for his generation. He wrote that message down so the people wouldn’t forget it.
Micah lived about 700 years before the birth of Christ. He was a country boy from the little town of Moresheth a few miles outside Jerusalem. Scholars tell us that he lived about the same time as his fellow prophets Isaiah and Hosea. In fact, many think he and Isaiah were good friends because parts of the books they wrote sound very similar.
A character sketch of Micah would yield the following words and phrases: blunt, direct, terse, plain-spoken, no-nonsense, a straight arrow kind of guy. He loved the common man and hated corrupt politicians. In fact, his book is basically a condemnation of religious and political leaders who use their position to take advantage of other people. Micah was a prophet of social reform.
A World Like Ours
Three phrases describe the situation of those days:
1. International Tension. Israel was caught between three warring nations—Assyria, Egypt, and the Philistines. The greater threat came from the Assyrians who had exacted tribute from Israel in exchange for peace. It led to a kind of voluntary national slavery.
2. Religious Corruption. Again and again Micah railed against priests who took bribes and then said whatever people wanted to hear. It seems like all the leaders were on the take.
3. Moral Chaos. This follows from the first two. It was every man for himself, the rich ripping off the poor, the leaders taking bribes, and everyone cheating everyone else. The merchants couldn’t be trusted, the leaders couldn’t be trusted, and you couldn’t be sure about the members of your own family.
If you look at those phrases, on thing is clear. Micah lived in a day not much different than ours. His book could have been written in 1996. In some ways the message sounds as if the prophet has been reading The Chicago Tribune.
So Micah wrote to a world facing huge problems. And he wrote condemning the sin and hypocrisy rampant among God’s people. In no uncertain terms he warned them of judgment to come. He pulled no punches and took no prisoners.
Dropped into this severe message from God is a delightful passage of Scripture. Although it is only 3 verses long, it tells us exactly what God wants from you for Christmas this year.
I. The Wrong Answer 6-7
What does God want from his people? Verses 6-7 gives us the wrong answer first.
A. Quality of Sacrifice 6
“With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” The people have heard Micah’s words of warning and now they want to know, “What does God want from us?” Their first answer deals with quality of sacrifice. A yearling calf was a one-year-old calf. That was considered the prime age for sacrifice. Perhaps God will be pleased if we give him the very best that we have.
But the answer is no.
B. Quantity of Sacrifice 7a
“Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?” If it’s not quality he wants, then perhaps it’s quantity. The idea is to impress God by offering a thousand rams at a time and then creating a river of oil flowing through the streets. Surely that would make God happy. The idea is that an extravagant sacrifice would convince God of their sincerity.
But the answer is no.
C. The Ultimate Sacrifice 7b
“Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” This is an immoral suggestion. Child sacrifice was forbidden by God, yet practiced by the pagan peoples around Israel. The people are suggesting that if they offer their firstborn sons, the Lord would be pleased and would forgive their sins.
But the answer is no.
You’ve got the picture, don’t you? This is “Let’s Make a Deal” religion. “Whatever you want, Lord, we’ll do it. You name the price and we’ll meet it.” They actually thought God would trade forgiveness for sacrifice. In essence they thought God could be bought just like their leaders!
It’s so typical of us. We often do the same thing. We say, “Lord, I’ll do anything you want. You name your price. You want a missionary? I’m ready to go. You want me to be married or to stay single, I’m you man. Lord, I’ll be a preacher or a pastor. I’ll be a deacon or an elder. I’ll pray every day and read my Bible. Whatever you want from me, that’s what I’ll do. I really mean it, Lord.”
Now there’s nothing wrong with those sentiments. They are good and noble and proper. God is pleased when we offer ourselves to him.
So what’s wrong? Those answers only deal with the outside. God wants your heart. You can be a missionary and have a hard heart. You can be married or single and have a rebellious heart. You can be very religious and yet far away from God.
God rejected every offer made by the Israelites because they had completely missed the point. They wanted to make a deal and God wanted their hearts.
II. The Right Answer 8
That brings us to the right answer in verse 8. This verse has been called the heart of Old Testament religion and the greatest verse in all the Old Testament. It sums up what God really wants from you and me. This is the kind of verse you ought to commit to memory, write out on a card, and put it in your mirror so you can look at it every day. It tells us exactly what God looks for in your life.
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
The Hebrew word is mishpat. Often in the Old Testament this word is applied to God’s own character. God is just—he is absolutely fair and righteous in all his dealings. He gives to each person exactly what they deserve. Justice means “treating people right because you know God.” In the Bible this concept is applied in some very concrete ways: caring for the poor, remembering the widows and orphans, not plowing the corners of your field so the hungry could get food, speaking the truth, paying a fair wage, having honest scales, no cheating, no extortion, and refusing to take advantage of the less fortunate.
For us at Christmastime justice certainly means doing right to the less fortunate because we know God.
This speaks of the way we treat others. The Hebrew word is hesed, which means “loyal love” or “patient love.” It’s the word sometimes translated “his mercy endures forever.” It means loving the unlovely even when they don’t love you back. It speaks to our obligation to care for people who don’t care for us.
Here’s a simple definition of mercy: Doing unto others as God has done unto you. In just a few days 1996 will be history. Think back across the last 12 months. How has God treated you this year? Has God blessed you? Then bless others. Has God forgiven you? Then forgive others. Has God lifted you up when you were down? Then lift others up when they are down. Has God overlooked your faults? Then overlook the faults of others.
The word translated “mercy” is elsewhere translated as “lovely” or “beautiful.” Here is a quality that will make you beautiful to others. I call this Hope For the Homely. Show mercy and people will think you are beautiful!
“Godless. Need His Love and Forgiveness.”
This week a friend sent me a fax containing the story of an incident that God used to speak to his heart:
I want to share a lesson that my wife taught me on Saturday about being a loving person. We were driving in two cars coming from her sister’s house. We exited the freeway at Harlem Avenue, I was following my wife in my car. As usual, a man with a “Homeless, Need Money, Please Help” sign was walking the ramp. I looked past him as usual thinking about what I was going to do the rest of the day. You see, I don’t give to the homeless in Oak Park because it might attract more homeless to the community. Suddenly my wife opened her window and gave the man money. He accepted it and walked toward my car. I ignored him. He walked by within 2 feet of me. A brief but uncomfortable feeling quickly passed.
Later that day I began to ponder how my wife is different from me, not about giving financially but emotionally. She gives Christian love generously. Her Christian walk is filled with Christian and non-Christian friends. She is open with her faith and her love. I have mostly Christian friends. I love those who are already Christian, but keep my Christianity to myself around those who aren’t.
Then something clicked. The homeless man didn’t care how much money my wife had, only that she gave some of it. Likewise the world doesn’t care how much love I have, only that I share it with them. How many people do I know that hold a spiritual sign that says, “Godless. Need his love and forgiveness. Please help”? Most every time I pretend that I don’t see the need or the sign. I don’t have the time or the money or the solution or some other excuse. I can’t attract non-Christians to me when I refuse to share God’s love with my hurting coworker, my Muslim acquaintance, my widowed neighbor. Lord, this holiday season, help me to openly share my love and faith to those that need it around me.
We need mercy at Christmastime, don’t we? If God has been merciful to you this year, be merciful to those around you.
The word “humbly” comes from a Hebrew word that means “modestly” or “carefully.” It speaks of an attitude that is the opposite of pride. What is humility? It’s having a right view of yourself because you have a right view of God. Humility does not mean saying, “I’m a nothing, I’m a worm, I’m useless.” That’s not humility, that’s self-pity, which is really another form of pride.
And what is pride? It’s having too large a view of yourself because you have too small a view of God. When your God is big, you will be small, and pride will be impossible.
This is humility. “God made me and I belong to him. Every good thing I have in life is a gift from the Almighty. Some have more, some have less. It matters not to me. I thank God for what I have and I’m going to do the best I can with what God has given me, and I’m going to leave the outcome with him.”
If we live that way, it will save us so much trouble. We won’t have to get into a power game at work or live in the rat-race or sell our convictions to get ahead. We won’t get angry at the silly comments people make. Humility enables us to be who we are in Christ. And we don’t have to worry about what others think.
Last night Marlene and I and Nick attended the Christmas Caroling Outreach Party along with about 100 others. We had a wonderful supper and then divided into groups. We were in the “Leaping Lords” along with about 20 others. We traveled together and sang at five different homes. The first three were shut-ins, the fourth was a prospect, and for our last stop we visited a home in north Oak Park where the Village Manager was hosting a party for the Village Trustees. All the high-level local officials were there for the evening. It was a magnificent soiree with musicians, beautiful people, wonderful food, and so on.
But that wasn’t the highlight of the evening. The real highlight happened on our second stop at the home of Mary Bell. Most of you don’t know Mary even though she’s been a member of this church for nearly 50 years. Mary is 90 years old and not in good health. She hasn’t been to a service here in three or four years. We thought we would go by and cheer her up.
When we got to her home in Forest Park, everything was dark and I thought she might have already gone to bed. So all 20 of us trooped up on the porch. We knocked and after a long pause, the door opened. There was Mary, looking frail and sickly. There was no light from the inside and very little from the outside. She pressed her weather-beaten face against the screen door and listened as we sang. It seemed like a scene from a Dickens novel.
“Don’t Let the Devil Get You Down”
When we finished, Mary began to preach to us. Evidently she had been saving up because she talked and talked without stopping. “I’ve been a Christian all my life,” she said, “and I want you to know that Jesus is wonderful. God is so good to me. I don’t know why I am laid up like this, but I don’t question God. He knows what’s best for me.”
Even though her back was stooped and her voice trembled a bit, she began to exhort the children. “You young ones, God loves you too. There are many temptations in the world, but God is good. He will help you if you turn to him.” Four times she told us, “Don’t let the devil get you down.”
We had come to bless her, but she had blessed us instead.
As we left singing, my last vision was of Mary Bell’s face pressed against the screen door, listening to our voices and watching us go into the night.
The thought occurred to me later that by the world’s standards, Mary Bell is a humble woman. Yet I believe there was more true greatness there than in the home where all the power brokers of Oak Park were having their party.
Three Simple Words
What does God want from you this year at Christmastime? Justice … Mercy … Humility. Rightly understood, those three words form the sum total of your Christian duty. If you have those things, God will be pleased. If you don’t, nothing else makes much difference.
That brings us back to Mich. Why didn’t God accept all their sacrifices? Why did he turn them down? Because they offered him everything except the one thing he really wanted—their hearts.
The religion God approves is the religion of the heart! Outward religion is useless unless the heart belongs to God. He wants the real you—the person on the inside. You can fake a lot of religious activity. But the heart doesn’t lie.
Why Jesus Came
What does God want from me at Christmastime (and every other day as well)? Justice … Mercy … Humility. These are matters of the heart.
This is why Jesus Came. Matthew 12:18 says, “He will proclaim justice to the nations.” When Mary sang of Jesus birth she said, “His mercy extends to those who fear him” and “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:50, 52).
This is the heart of the gospel. What God requires, he first gives to us.
He came to establish justice!
He came to show mercy!
He came to lift up the humble!
Do You Have Room?
This week a friend sent me an Advent Calendar with the title “Do You Have Room?” It’s built around Luke 2:7, “And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for him in the inn.” As you open the calendar the are tear-off strips of paper containing various contemporary excuses the innkeeper might give today:
“Sorry. It’s dinner time. Don’t interrupt me.”
“Totally frazzled. I can’t handle more company.”
“Sorry! Christmas pageant tonight. God bless you. Bye.”
“Not now! I’m listening for tonight’s Lotto numbers.”
“”We’re all ‘gived out.’ Can’t afford to put up company. Sorry.”
“Can’t. At this point I don’t know which end is up.”
After 2000 years Jesus still knocks at the door of your heart. Will you make room for him this year?
Christian, he wants your heart
Perhaps you’ve heard these words by Christina Rosetti. What will you give Jesus this year?
What shall I give him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I’d give him a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I’d do my part.
What shall I give him, I’ll give him my heart.
Have you ever done that? Have you ever given him your heart?
No decision is more important. No one else can make it for you. If you aren’t ready, then nothing I say or do can compel you to come to Christ. But if you are ready, then it’s time for you to do business with the Lord.
The Bible says that “To all who received him, to those who believed in him, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Have you ever received Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord? Would you like to do that right now?
If you answer yes to that question, here’s a simple prayer that may help express the desire of your heart: “Dear God, I know that I am sinner. I confess that I have sinned many times in word and deed. I humbly confess that I have broken your law and that my sins have separated me from God. Here and now, I confess my sins and ask Jesus Christ to be my Savior. I believe that Jesus is Your only begotten Son who died on the cross for me and rose from the dead on the third day. With all my heart and all my soul, I am trusting Jesus alone for my salvation. Please forgive my sins and save me. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and make me a brand-new person. These things I ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.”