Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On the eleventh day of Christmas: the “but have” that has the gift

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish BUT HAVE eternal life.”[1]

          What we call the Christmas story is surrounded with the contrast between the Haves and the Have-nots. When Nicodemus came for his late-night visit with Jesus, he was a Have-not wondering what Jesus had. When Jesus described the necessity of knowing God in the born-again kind of way, it was clear that everyone was a Have-not in need of having this gift.
          One way this makes sense to me is in the difference between a menu and a meal. A menu describes and pictures things we don’t have. It shows that any of those menu items is a possibility, something we could have, but with the knowledge that we do not have any of those items while only holding the menu.
          Once we have placed our order, and the server brings out our choices, everything changes from what we don’t have, to what we do have. Having the food that was pictured and described is far better than having a menu full of options.
          There is no doubt that we know the difference between having and not having. While we see presents appearing under the Christmas tree, we do not actually have the gifts that are labeled for us. They are like the menu. In fact, they are like a menu with no descriptions or pictures. It is like a menu that says, “Gift 1” and then specifies the dimensions of the package. It is waiting for us, but it is not yet ours in the way of “having,” and we can’t even be sure that we know what it is.
          The gift that is under consideration determines much of what it means that we have the gift. To have that pair of socks we have been dreaming about all Christmas season is to add some comfort to our feet. To finally have that young lady some young man has been dreaming of marrying forever (it seems) means something far more wonderful than a mere item of clothing.[2]
          It is not only that the value of the gift adds something special to the experience of having that gift, but so does the nature of the gift. A young lady may place great value on her beautiful engagement ring, but the difference in nature between a glittering stone and the beau that offers it affects how she feels about what she has. To have a ring is the promise of having something better than the ring. She can delight in the experience of having the ring, wearing it, enjoying what it looks like on her finger, but with greater anticipation of what she will have when the one who gave her the ring also gives her himself.[3]
          It is distinctive to me that Jesus said there was something God gave that we can have. In the same way as children don’t think it is Christmas until they have what has been given to them, we don’t really appreciate the first gift of Christmas until we truly have it. Reading about it doesn’t mean we have it. Singing songs about it doesn’t mean it is ours. Giving credence to the Christmas story, and accepting the details of history, may bring people together in some inexplicable feeling of Christmas cheer, but we really have nothing until we have everything. There is a gift given, and it only means something to us when we have it.
          Another way God’s book describes having the Christmas gift God has offered us begins with two examples of have-not-ism, meaning, ways that people did not and do not have this gift. God wrote: “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”[4]
          Here Jesus is called “the true light,” because he is the image and expression of God shining into our darkness. This light in Jesus “gives light to everyone,” because “God so loved the world,” and “whoever” believes in Jesus sees this light. He was “coming into the world,” during  that thirty-plus years because God gave his Son to the world he loved.
          However, even though Jesus “was in the world,” the baby born in a manger, “the Word” that “became flesh and dwelt among us,”[5]and even though “the world was made through him,” there was this terrible, strange, experience of have-not-ism. The world that Jesus created, “did not know him.” Even though “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made,”[6] and “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,”[7]the very world Jesus had made did know that it was him.
          In fact, the world still does not know that it was him who came. The world does not know that the answer to the question of our origins is not in Darwin’s book, but in God’s book. The world does not know that Jesus answered the question of where we are from when he came into his world, expressing his Father’s love for the world they had created. They do not have the gift because they do not know him who came, their Creator, their Savior, and their God.
          A second expression of this have-not-ism was seen when Jesus “came to his own,” the Jewish people, the ones who had been told by prophets that God would send the Messiah into the world, born of a virgin, born in Bethlehem, the light shining in a dark place. God’s word says that “his own people did not receive him.”
          After all the centuries the nation of Israel had waited for Messiah (the Christ) to come, they did not welcome him when he arrived. They did not come to him in Bethlehem. They did not welcome his message during his few years of public ministry. The leaders of the nation called for his crucifixion, thinking by this they would rid the world of him. Instead, the fulfilled God’s plan that his Son would die so that his people could live, and so many people have come to have the gift of God through a nation that would not have what was so lovingly given.
          Now, while God’s book describes two ways that people would not have this gift, here is how it describes the wonderful way that people would have it. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”[8]
          Remember that Jesus said that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”? Here it elaborates that “all who did receive him,” meaning, all “who believed in his name,” were given the gift that God offered in his Son. What they received, or what they came to have, was “the right to become children of God.”
          Now, notice the way God clarifies this. He says that, when people are given the right to become children of God, this does not mean they were born of “blood,” “flesh,” or the “will of man.” Those phrases summarize everything to do with natural birth.
          What God was saying was that people come to have the right to become “children of God,” by being born “of God.” This is what Jesus was telling Nicodemus; that people had to come to know God in that born-again kind of way because, only through the new birth where we are born of God can we become the children of God who know God.
          All of this is to emphasize that Christmas is not about simply knowing something happened two thousand years ago, but knowing God today. It is not a matter of singing about Jesus, but singing to Jesus. It is not about celebrating something from the past, but something from the past that changes the present into a wonderful hope for the future.
          By now we know very clearly that there are the Haves and the Have-nots. This is given to encourage us to take the gift of God by faith until we know we have it, because then we can know the true blessing of this wonderful “About Christ” Day.

Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)

[1] John 3:16
[2] I mean this in relation to God’s design of a young couple living as two single-people until their wedding day. God has written much about the differences between singleness and marriage in his book, so I will let the illustration stand with its emphasis on the contrast between not-having the person we long to live with for the rest of our lives, and the wedding ceremony as the beginning of the “to have and to hold” experience.
[3] My idealism-by-the-Book thinks of the way God teaches husbands to give themselves to their wives in the same way that Jesus loved the church and gave himself for her. While a young husband may be very immature in his ability to express such love, this is the grandest hope a young lady could have, that her husband would seek to love her the way Jesus has loved his church, a central part of the Christmas story.
[4] John 1:9-11
[5] John 1:14
[6] John 1:3
[7] Colossians 1:16
[8] John 1:12-13

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