All of us have received gifts that are important and precious to us. Because God loves us so much, He gave us a gift that is more special than anything else we have received or could possibly give.
A big shout-out to Steve Huddleston, Pastor at University Christian Church. He has graciously loaned us a lot of the materials we’ve been using with this series. It’s so encouraging to be in a culture where churches realize we’re all on the same team and work to support each other. They’re about to begin building an expansion to their building. Please keep them and their efforts in your prayers!
I’ll try to post pictures from this sermon later in the day. For now, you can listen to the audio here.
Numbers of Hope: He Gave
September 21, 2008
I want to share with you a very special possession of mine. It’s a Bible I’ve had for close to 25 years. Now, I have several different Bibles with different translations and different study notes inside. A quick glance at my office bookshelf will show no less than 10 different Bibles. But this one is more special to me than all of the other ones combined. It’s what they call a parallel Bible, containing two translations of the Bible in side-by-side columns so you can compare the way the scholars who did the King James Version and the New International Version handled each text as they translated the Greek and Hebrew texts into the English language. This Bible definitely looks like it’s seen better days. The spine is broken and I’ve had to duct tape it together on several occasions. I keep it in a Bible cover, just to help keep it all together. The Bible is also missing some key elements – like the majority of the book of Genesis and other pages that have fallen out of this Bible. But I won’t ever get rid of this Bible. It’s precious to me. Of course, it’s the Word of God, so of course I accept the message of the Scriptures as precious, but this Bible in particular is very special to me. It’s not because of all of the notes I’ve written in it over the years, asking questions about particular passages or recording insights from specific verses. It’s not all of the stuff that I have stuffed in this Bible, turning it into a mini-scrapbook of my last 25 years (look through it – bulletins from old churches, Bible study notes, even a bank statement or two). It’s not the fact that my name is engraved on the front of it. No, it’s none of that. All of these things do make this Bible special to me, but they’re not what make it my favorite Bible. So what makes this beaten up book my favorite of all of the Bibles I own? It’s what’s found on the inside cover. It says, “Matthew Todd with love from Grandma and Craig. Christmas 1984.” This Bible has special meaning to me because it was a gift from some very special people in my life – my grandma and grandpa.
Gifts come in all shapes and sizes. Some are afterthoughts and some show the result of a lot of time and thought. Some gifts, regardless of the monetary value, are precious to us because the one who gave us the gift is special to us. I have all kinds of drawings and crafts made for me by my children. They are works of art to me. And I’m sure you understand. Some of you might have similar masterpieces that have been torn out of coloring books hanging on your refrigerator doors. They would hardly be confused with the works of Michelangelo or Leonardo DaVinci, but they are precious to you. Why? Because of the child or grandchild who gave it to you. It has value because of the one who gave it to you.
We have been given a gift that is far more valuable than any other gift. We’re continuing our look at the most famous verse in all of Scripture, John 3:16. It’s the conclusion to the conversation between a prominent religious leader and the One who upended his entire belief system. In this one sentence, Jesus sums up his entire ministry and, in fact, all of Scripture itself. As we discussed last week, it all begins with the fact that God loves us. He loves you and He loves me. He is willing to go to the ends of the earth so we can have a living, breathing, loving friendship with the Creator of the whole of creation. “For God so loved the world…” and we can’t help but stop at the next three words: “That He gave.” Because of God’s radical, unconditional love for you and for me, He gave. We may think we understand love. We listen to songs about it. We watch movies displaying it. We write poetry proclaiming it. We hear inspiring stories of people who made amazing sacrifices in order to show their love and affection. But all of that pales in comparison to God’s response to the love He has for us. In Max Lucado’s book, 3:16 – the Numbers of Hope, which inspired this series, he says this about God’s love in relation to our own: “Our finest love is a preschool watercolor next to God’s Rembrandt, a vacant-lot dandelion next to his garden rose. His love stands sequoia strong; our best attempts bend like weeping willows.” God’s response to His own love for us is that He gave. That in and of itself makes His gift special – it comes out of the depth of His love for us. We could stop there. God loves. God gave. That’s enough. The fact that the Creator of the Universe gave us a gift, regardless of the nature of the gift, should give us cause to celebrate.
But it doesn’t stop there. When you keep reading, you find five words in the NIV translation that make this gift the most special of all gifts: “His one and only Son.” He could have given us a commandment to show His love. He could have given us a messenger or some large Valentine’s Day card written in the clouds. He could have given us a perfect government or sent a choir of angels to sing love songs to us from the heavens. But that’s not what He did. He sent His son. And how does that make a difference?
If you have your Bibles with you, turn with me to the book of Philippians, chapter 2. Philippians is found somewhat near the middle of the New Testament. It’s tucked in between Ephesians and Colossians. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. Philippians 2 is found on page 1023 in that Bible. The Apostle Paul is talking to the church at Philippi about how we should be imitators of Christ and how that should be reflected in our attitudes. In his description of Christ’s humility, he says this about Jesus…
You see, God Himself wrapped Himself in flesh and became a person in response to the love He has for us. This gift we’ve been given came in an amazing, unexpected package.
I mentioned about a month ago that Christy and I recently celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. When I finally gathered up enough courage to actually propose to her, I wanted it to be a very special, very memorable occasion. Here was the plan: I had a bag of Hershey’s Kisses and stuffed them in my jacket pocket. In the same pocket, I took the engagement ring, wrapped it in an empty Hershey’s Kiss wrapper, and placed it in my pocket. I also grabbed some bread and told Christy I really wanted to go feed the ducks at the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, which was about 10 minutes away from Milligan. When I arrived at Christy’s apartment (a little bit late), she had a list of things she needed to do before she could go feed the ducks. So, we went to every guy’s favorite place: the mall. I don’t remember what she was looking for at the Mall, but I do remember being worried about the fact that this expensive piece of jewelry was just floating around in my pocket. So, every few seconds, I’d stick my hand in my pocket to make sure the ring was still there. It never went anywhere, but I was sure worried that it would fall out.
I’m sure I was overbearing about how I wanted to go ahead and go feed the ducks (which I’m sure sounded a little odd), but we finally made it out to the Covered Bridge. We walked over to the area by the river where we sat and talked late into the night on our first date. The weather was perfect. The setting was perfect. Everything was perfect. So I started eating these Kisses, saying things like, “Man, these are good,” and silly things like that – trying to get Christy to ask me for one. Now, Christy’s a pretty observant person. And she can usually see right through me. So she figured out pretty quickly that I was trying to get her to ask me for a Kiss. She turned around, stuck her hand out, and said, “Give me one.”
“You’re sure?” I said. Like she knew what I really meant when I asked that.
It was probably just a second or two, but it felt like an hour before I could get the engagement ring out of my pocket and into her hand. When I placed the ring in the palm of her hand, it didn’t look like a Hershey’s Kiss anymore. Instead, it looked like a piece of aluminum foil twisted into the shape of an engagement ring. While it didn’t have the exact look I’d hoped for, it did have the effect that I’d expected. She was surprised. This gift that I’d given her was wrapped in an unexpected package.
It’s something similar here that Paul is describing. Instead of an engagement ring wrapped in aluminum foil, we find God Himself wrapped in flesh. For centuries, the people of God had watched and waited for a deliverer. They hoped for a mighty king to come in and wipe out their oppressors. They looked to the skies to see if God was going to come down, riding a horse and ushering in His new kingdom. Instead, they found a little baby, born in a barn and raised as a carpenter’s son. There’s a Christmas card that puts it this way: “The Word did not become a philosophy, a theory, or a concept to be discussed, debated or pondered. Instead, the Word became FLESH…the Word became a PERSON to be followed, enjoyed, and loved.” The gift of God’s Son certainly came in an unexpected package.
And is that really a surprise? Doesn’t God work in unexpected ways anyway? And maybe that’s what some people’s hang up is and why they choose to miss out on God’s gift – because it’s not wrapped in the package they expect. They expect God’s gift to give us all of the answers. They ask questions like, “If God loves me, why did He let my spouse die?” or “If God’s a God of love and forgiveness, why is there war and poverty in the world?” or “If God really loves me, then why doesn’t He fix all of my problems?” The reason they’re not finding this wonderful gift is because they’re looking for the wrong packaging. They want a God that will conform to their own images and their own idea of what the Divine should do and how He should act. If God’s really God, He would answer all of my questions, right? Instead of looking for the God created in our own image, we need to be looking for the God in whose image we were created. He’s a God who gave us a very special gift and it was wrapped in a very special, yet unexpected way.
And this gift had an amazing cost. This gift God gave us is of incalculable value. It says so at the end of verse 8 in Philippians 2. “He humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” God loves you so much that He chose to die for you so you could have a friendship with Him. God loves you so much that He chose to not only die, but die a particularly gruesome death. Listen to what the entry about the Death of Jesus found in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels says about crucifixion:
“Crucifixion was particularly heinous. The act itself damaged no vital organs, nor did it result in excessive bleeding. Hence, death came slowly, sometimes after several days, through shock or a painful process of asphyxiation as the muscles used in breathing suffered increasing fatigue…Crucifixion was quintessentially a public affair. Naked and affixed to a stake, cross, or tree, the victim was subjected to savage ridicule by frequent passersby, while the general populace was given a grim reminder of the fate of those who assert themselves against the authority of the state.”
Another author describes it like this: read Witherington’s account from ‘New Testament Story’. (I’ll find this and post this soon)
And He went through all of that for you. Out of His love for you, he willingly chose the most horrendous method of death imaginable so that you and I could be called friends of God. He gave so that we may have life. Because He loves us.
The 3:16 gift cost God His one and only Son. Like all other gifts, we have a choice whether to accept it or reject it. When I gave Christy that engagement ring wrapped in aluminum foil, she had to make a choice. Would she say yes or no? Obviously, we know her answer.
But what’s your answer to the ultimate gift that we have been given? Have you said yes? Have you accepted this free gift that cost more than any of us could comprehend? The gift He has given us allows us to exchange our guilt and punishment for forgiveness and an eternal promise. Have you chosen to unwrap that gift? The gift is yours for the taking. Simply come forward this morning and we’ll talk. We’ll talk about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, to have your old life taken away and the gift of a new life given to you. Let Him bury your old heart in the waters of baptism and give you a NEW heart – HIS heart, and a new life – ETERNAL life in Heaven, and ABUNDANT life while still on this Earth. Won’t you come and open this amazing gift right now? Don’t leave it unopened. Take advantage of this free gift today as we stand and sing Oh How He Loves You and Me.
I didn’t really have a chance in the sermon to mention that the proposal almost became even more memorable when I dropped the ring as I tried to put it on her finger! We were about three feet away from a river. Fortunately, it didn’t roll anywhere or the story might not have had such a happy ending! 🙂