Monday, December 12, 2016

Jesus: God's Christmas Gift to Us

I recently spoke at my church's Christmas dinner and was asked to share the message on my blog. Though it is a bit longer than my normal posts, I hope you are able to take a small break from the busyness of the holiday season and enjoy God's Christmas gift to you.

What is a gift? A simple answer from The Merriam Webster dictionary is “something given,” a “present.” It is the Christmas season, and many of you have already done your Christmas shopping, and some (like me) haven’t started yet, but gift giving is on our minds. “That hat would be perfect for Aunt Carol.” Or, “My husband needs those shoes.” Some people don’t enjoy shopping and just want to get it over with as quickly as possible and others search and search for just the right gift for each person on their list. My mother-in-law was like that. My first Christmas at her house I was astonished. She had a long row of gifts for each person, beautifully wrapped, and each one was carefully and thoughtfully chosen for the recipient.

I think my mother-in-law had a heart that reflected God’s heart. Before Jesus’ arrival on earth, God was busy making preparations; he was carefully working behind the scenes, orchestrating events, and preparing his special gift for the world. He was thinking of each of us, individually, and considering our true needs—what would be our perfect gift?

And then he gave it: Jesus, God’s own son. He came as a little baby, grew up, and interacted with humanity.

Several years ago I read through the New Testament of the Bible with a friend of mine. We read together for about an hour every night over the phone, and the words became alive with meaning. There were special circumstances. I was going through chemotherapy and radiation to treat an aggressive form of cancer, and my friend had a terminal diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer. She died a few weeks after we finished reading the New Testament. We were fighting a dark battle together, and yet those times of reading the Bible became a beautiful and precious experience, and God’s words and love shone like a bright, bright light. It was his gift to us.

Since then I have continued to read and reread the New Testament. I am drawn to the stories of Jesus and his interactions with people while he lived on earth.  They are intriguing. The people were everyday people, just like us. They had fears, hopes, desires, and disappointments. And when they met Jesus, when their lives intersected with his, he had a way of understanding their hearts, zeroing in on their true needs, and then giving them a gift. It may not have been what they were looking for or even knew they needed, but Jesus knew their hearts. He was God incarnate. God in human form with hands and legs and eyes and voice. And he knew what people truly needed. So as they were going about their everyday lives, Jesus stepped in and gave them a gift, perfectly tailored for each of them, and sent from God.

We are going to look at three of those stories. They are my interpretation of the events in Scripture and are about three different women that met Jesus during his lifetime and what gift he gave to each of them. We will start with The Samaritan Woman.

The Samaritan Woman 
(Based on John 4:1–42)

Samaria was considered the armpit of the Jewish world, and the Jews’ aversion to Samaritan people so strong that when traveling they often crossed the Jordan River to avoid stepping on “tainted” soil.5 So, it surprised her to see a group of Jewish men traveling through the Samaritan countryside. What had enticed them to suffer the indignity? It looked like they had already walked quite a distance when they arrived outside her hometown, Sychar. One of the men sat down by the well while the others journeyed on into town. 
As the man rested, she began her own trek to the well. She should be safe. A Jewish man wouldn’t dare speak to a Samaritan woman. Especially not her, if he knew her history. She was divorced, not just once either, but five times and was now on to boyfriend number six, well beyond accepted social conventions. Still, it was unusual to see a Jewish man alone at the well at this time of day, and she knew enough of the world to be skeptical. She stooped down and picked up a hefty rock, adeptly hid it in the fabric of her dress, and continued on her errand.
She neared the well with her head down. She wanted to complete her task and get on her way. But as she prepared to draw the water, the man spoke to her. She was shocked! Furthermore, he asked her for a drink. She had a little vim and vigor, was tired of being judged, and wary of hypocrites. She knew a Jewish man should not talk to a Samaritan woman or take a drink from a “defiled” Samaritan cup, let alone from a Samaritan woman’s bucket! 
She gave him a good once over and bestowed him with her best stink-eye before she answered. “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” She was no dummy. 
But his answer surprised her. "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” What did he mean? He didn’t have a bucket. No cup either. How did he expect to carry water, let alone reach the depths of the well? She lambasted him with her observations, yet he appeared un-rattled. Then he spoke to her again. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Oh, now she understood. He was off his rocker. It figured. She just wanted to go to the well, get her water, and go home. Now this. Great. Probably all the other Samaritan women would get a good laugh out of her bad luck. She was used to being the butt of their jokes. So what? Who cared? She certainly didn’t anymore. She was tired. Weary. She looked at him again and thought, “Just play along with the crazy guy and maybe he will move on.” 
“Okay,” she sighed, and said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Then the conversation abruptly shifted. The man’s next words grabbed her attention. He knew all about her. He knew her life story, hurts, disappointments, and her damaged heart. Then the shocker: he told her that he was the long awaited Savior, the Messiah, speaking to her—a divorced Samaritan woman, sitting in the dirt by the well in the midday heat. She dropped her bucket and ran to town. She shared the news with everyone she knew, the ones who had judged her, the ones who had dropped her from their social circles; she didn’t care about what they did anymore. She had found the Savior! She told them, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”
They listened to the woman and then went to find the man. They talked with him and invited him to stay.  He did, and many heard him speak, and many believed. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” She marveled at it all, astonished that she was the first person in her town that the Savior, Jesus, chose to talk with and share his amazing message.

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” (John 7:37–38)

The Samaritan woman was ostracized (she had the stigma of being a 5-times divorced woman), rejected, abandoned, and alone. She was weary and empty (the things she thought would satisfy her didn’t pan out). Then Jesus sat down next to her and offered her these gifts: 1. Worth. She had value as a person. He showed this by reaching out to her, and asking her for a drink of water. He went out of his way to meet her. At that time Jews didn’t talk with Samaritans, and a Jewish man certainly wouldn’t have started a conversation with a Samaritan woman. And he could have picked anyone in her village to reveal his identity to, and yet he chose her. This simple act showed he cared for her and that she had worth. 2. Living water: he gave her a new life and relationship with a merciful, faithful and loving God. He offered her a filling of God’s presence that would begin to overtake her emptiness here and would extend into eternity, offering the hope of an abundant future. 

The second story is called: 

(Based on Luke 7:36–50)

She hated her life and every morning woke up to the same realization—she wasn’t going anywhere. Sure she had managed to save up a little money. It wasn’t much but it was there, part of her backup plan. And she had secured some valuable gifts over the years from her “beaus.” She had an expensive bottle of perfume carefully hidden away. She was counting on it to help fund her escape. But she wasn’t able to leave yet, and was still bound by the four walls of her bedroom, each carefully decorated for seduction. The draped curtains and scented sheets intoxicated her clients, but stole her breath, choking her with shame, hatred, and self-loathing.
She walked outside for a respite from the stifling room. The air cooled her face and when she looked up she noticed a group gathering in the distance. Perhaps a new peddler had arrived. She meandered over and kept her head bowed, avoiding eye contact with her neighbors. They knew what she was, and she had learned from experience that it was best to ignore them, even the ones who whispered to her intimately in her bedroom. In the daylight they looked at her with the same scorn as everyone else.
She made her way to the small crowd only to discover it wasn’t for a peddler as she had hoped, but a religious teacher. She was about to leave when the teacher caught her eye. He didn’t turn away from her glance like everyone else, but instead began to speak. He spoke about forgiveness and repentance and a new way of life in God’s kingdom where everyone was welcome…even her.
As the crowd grew she remained. She couldn’t pull herself away from the teacher’s words. Even the contemptuous glares from the others in the community didn’t bother her. The teacher’s words carried a promise of something new, a life free from her past and filled with possibilities and hope. He spoke of a God who loved and showed mercy. She continued to listen until the end, and then walked home, slowly contemplating the teacher’s words and wondering if they were true.
That night she did not put her lamp in the window to signal she was open for visitors. Instead, she closed the door, and the curtains, and prayed. Was it possible that she could be forgiven? For everything she had done?
The next morning she learned of the teacher’s whereabouts. He was invited to dine with a local religious leader named Simon. She wanted to thank the teacher for his words, and for giving her something precious: hope. She grabbed her most valuable possession and went to find him. When she reached Simon’s home she hesitated briefly outside the door. But then she saw the teacher, Jesus, and entered the house weeping. When she reached him, she bent low and began to wash his feet. She opened her precious bottle of perfume and poured it out, bathing his feet, kissing them and drying them with her hair. 
She forgot about the others in the room until she heard Jesus speak. He addressed the host, Simon, and she looked up. She could see Simon was not happy with her presence. He of course knew what she was. She waited for him to ask her to leave. But instead Jesus told him a story. There were two men, Jesus said, one owed a great sum and one a small one and both debts were forgiven by the lender. Jesus turned to the host. “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
Jesus glanced at the woman. “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”
The woman glanced up in awe. Was it true? Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven. …Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13–14) 

Forgiven: This woman hated her life. She could feel the weight of her sins, crushing her. She felt unworthy, unlovable, filthy, and wounded. Then she met Jesus and he gave her these gifts: 1. Forgiveness. Jesus could give this gift. He was God and had the power to forgive, and his death on the cross paid the debt of her sins and ours. 2 & 3. Salvation and Freedom: She no longer had to live a life she abhorred. Jesus offered her a new life free from the chains of her past. 4. Peace. Jesus said to her, “Go in peace.” The war within her was finally stilled, the self-loathing replaced with God’s love.

The third story is called Choosing the Better and is about a woman named Martha.

Choosing the Better
(Based on Luke 10:38–41)

Martha was a good hostess. She knew what was necessary to make a party go off without a hitch. She belonged to the ladies’ home circles. She knew which recipes worked for large groups, and saved her favorites. She kept her house tidy and inviting. So when she learned Jesus and his disciples were in town she did not hesitate to invite them to her home. 
As they approached she started her preparations. She knew they needed to eat, and she wanted to make sure they had enough snacks, beverages, were comfortable, and could sit down and relax. She hurried off to the kitchen, started organizing, pulling out food, running through the lists in her head of what she needed to do and considered how she was going to do it all. Then they arrived. As she seated people and tended to their needs, she realized there were more people than she expected. She started to feel overwhelmed. How was she going to serve everybody? She panicked. Her mind raced. How could she make this work? And then she saw her, her sister Mary. Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet without a care in the world, leaving Martha in the kitchen to scramble and worry and figure it all out. 
Martha got a little steamed. The stress of busyness caused her temper to flare, and she realized all she needed to get done could be done a whole lot quicker with Mary’s help. She gave Mary “the eye.” Mary didn’t notice. She cleared her throat, coughed loudly, giving Mary “the signal.” “Come on, I could use a little help!” she thought. Mary was oblivious. That was the last straw. Martha huffed her way into the room and took the matter to Jesus. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
She had a good argument and was certain once Jesus realized Mary’s idleness he would correct the situation and make her help. Chop, chop. Up and at ‘em, Mary. Martha waited for Mary to get admonished. With tenderness Jesus instead turned to Martha. “Martha, Martha,” he said, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
It ended up the thing that was “needed” did not include extra help in the kitchen. Martha was perplexed. She was a doer. She liked to serve. Maybe even play the martyr. Yet Jesus praised her sister, Mary. And for what? For stopping, taking a break from the busyness, and choosing to listen to Jesus. For learning from him while he was with them, and spending time together. Time with Jesus was precious. It was more important than Martha’s preparations. Martha considered Jesus’ words as she sat down at his feet. The work could wait.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? …But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25, 33)

Martha was busy. She knew what she needed… to get things done! She had her lists, goals, and was driven to achieve them. Yet, she found herself frustrated. She felt pressure. She wasn’t able to accomplish everything she wanted to do, her self-imposed “to–do list,” and then became upset with everyone else. If they just got on board with her agenda and helped, then she could get it all done. So she complained to Jesus. Jesus listened and he had a gift for her. But the gift Jesus had for her wasn’t what she expected. She wanted help. Instead Jesus gave her something else. 1. He gave her the gift of Himself: a relationship with the eternal God.

As we take this break from the busyness of the holiday season, I want to ask you. What gift has Jesus given to you? How is he speaking to your heart? Each of these gifts is available to you. Perhaps you feel tired, worn down, and need to hear God say: here is living water. Drink this and be refreshed and satisfied. Perhaps you feel alone, unlovable, or unworthy. Take God’s gift of love and forgiveness. He is reaching out to you with arms of mercy and acceptance and has paid the price of your sin, no matter how great you think it is. God’s love is bigger and he is seeking you out. Or perhaps you are just busy, busy, busy. Take some time away from the crazy schedule and spend it at the feet of Jesus, reading his word, in prayer, meditation, or worship. Take God’s gift of himself.

I encourage you this Christmas to unwrap the gift God has for you: Jesus, God’s Christmas gift to you.

The stories in today's post are from Sara's upcoming book: Everyday Jesus: Ordinary Encounters with Extraordinary Jesus.
All photos courtesy of

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