When I was growing up and we would get together with family, one of the things we would do is open up picture albums and tell family stories. Things like, “This was the ship your grandfather’s family sailed on in order to came to America from Prussia.” “This was your father right after he got out of Boot Camp.” “This is your mom and dad on his graduation from Supply School in Athens, Georgia.”
I hope that I am wrong but I fear that we are losing our family stories. We have gone from sharing our common history to being lost in our individual worlds. “This is what I had for breakfast.” “This is a selfie of me on vacation.” “Here’s a picture of my latest tattoo.”
Please don’t think that I have become my father’s generation, speaking against those long hair boys from England called the Beatles who will never amount to anything. I am not advocating that we abandon technology and return to picture albums. Rather I am pleading that we not lose our family stories because those stories are so very important. They define who we are; they give us our personal awareness. They tell us where we fit in this world. They even help us to find direction for our lives. I was talking with a woman one time and she said to me, “There are three things that you need to understand about me. I am a woman, I am Irish and I am Roman Catholic and none of those three things will ever change.” I respected that answer and I respected the clarity of her life. So in this Christmas season, if you are blessed enough to be around family, talk with them and learn your family story.
But let me quickly add that as important as it is for you to know your family story, I believe that it is vastly more important to know your family story in the context of the story that we hear tonight, the greatest story ever told. And if you think that those two stories are unrelated may I suggest that you could not be more wrong. The Creator of the Universe became flesh precisely so that He could become a part of our story, a part of your story. As we heard from St. Paul, Christ Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us…and to purify for himself a people for his own possession….” He comes to know your temptations, to share in your sufferings, to give you new life, to provide a way to become all that you were created to be. Eugene Peterson wrote. “God shapes us for his eternal purposes and he begins right here. The dust out of which we are made and the image of God into which we are made are one and the same.”
God does not heal us apart from our story. He heals us through and in the midst of our story. He is not a fairy godmother who taps us with a magic wand so that we instantly become Cinderella. He is a Potter who patiently molds us, as we are His clay. He is a Refiner, removing the dross from our lives in order to refine our gold. He is Immanuel, God with us! And the more that we are able to see our story entwined with His story, the more peace and joy we will have in believing.
So how do we get there from here? How do we see the bigger picture and come to know the peace and joy that God wills to bring to our lives? That answer is found in the most famous verse of the Bible that most everyone seems to know. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” But knowing it and living into it are two separate things. So let’s key in on four critical verbs so that we can live into this truth. The verbs are “loved,” “gave,”, “believe,” and “have.”
When I was 18 years old, and a freshman in college, a guy that I had never met before sat down next to me in the school cafeteria and asked me this question, “Did you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” I was raised in church and yet that question hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that God so loved the world but it never occurred to me that he loved Ray Kasch. And what was even more mindboggling was the thought that He would have a plan for my life. That happened nearly 50 years ago and I can testify to you that what he said was true. His plan for my life has been wonderful. At times it has been like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyworld, but it has been wonderful.
God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. That knowledge is what will keep you on course. Every time you hear “For God so loved the world” replace “world” with your name. And be assured that your life is not just a compilation of random circumstance or a product of luck or a consequence of fate. The Father that loves you, has sent His Son to enter your world, and make your life a part of His eternal, wonderful plan.
“For God so loved…that He gave…” That last word is beautiful. He didn’t so love that He “required.” He didn’t so love the world that He“dictated.” He didn’t so love the world that He “threatened.” Of course as the Almighty He could have done so but He didn’t. He so loved that He “gave” because when you love someone you give them a gift. And this precious gift tells us a lot about Him as well as a lot about us.
This gift tells us a lot about Him when we consider what manner of gift it is that He gave. When we look upon this Christ child we don’t think to ourselves, “He went to Jared’s.” Rather we fall on our knees in wonder and awe, that the Word would become flesh and dwell among us. While we will never fully comprehend such a gift it should cause us to never doubt the Father’s love.
This gift also tells us about ourselves. The value of something is what others are willing to pay for it. A lump of coal is worth a few cents. But take a lump of carbon, put it under extreme pressure and temperature for about 3 billion years and it becomes a diamond and folks will pay thousands of dollars for it. Its worth is determined by what folks will pay for it.
What God was willing to pay in order for you to become His child is a good indication of your worth to Him. This too is a mystery that we will never be able to wrap our minds around but it also tells you why He does have a wonderful plan for your life. He paid too high a price for you to let your life go to waste. Of course you can choose to waste it if you want but that is not His plan. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”
“That whosoever believes in Him….”As most of you know when the Bible speaks of “belief” it is much more than simply acknowledging a fact. You can intellectually acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God but that is not “belief” in the biblical sense. St. James points out in his Epistle that belief that is only acknowledgment is worthless. He says even “the demons believe and they tremble.” Biblical belief in Jesus Christ means to place your full trust in and reliance upon Him.
A tightrope walker walks a wheelbarrow on a tightrope stretched over a 1000-foot chasm. Then he turns around and comes back. He says “Do you believe that I can walk this wheelbarrow across this tightrope and back.” Because you just witnessed it you say, “Of course.” The he says to you “Get in the wheelbarrow.” True belief requires a commitment to the Lordship of Christ. When Bishop Frank confirms folks he says to them. “Remember you are not your own, you were bought with a price.” That is the consequence of belief and that is what makes the difference between perishing and having eternal life.
This leads us to the last verb “have.” This is the icing on the cake of the Good News. Note that the text does not say, “will one day have eternal life.” If it were true that eternal life was something that we only experience in the future then that would make this life no more than a waiting room. But that is not the case. Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” When we believe in Him, when we put our trust in His love and goodness then we HAVE eternal life and we have it now! We are cleansed from our sins now! We pass from death to life now! We change from being aliens to being His children now! We receive His Spirit to walk in newness of life now!
One of the signs that eternal life is something that you have now is, as St. Paul said, becoming “zealous for good works.” When Christ is truly Lord then you not only forsake any lawlessness that you may have been walking in but you get out of yourself and start to have God’s heart for others. You long to see God make things right in the world and you seek to become His hands and feet to make that happen.
This Advent we had the honor of hearing from a remarkable lady named Ronda Paulson who became zealous for good works when her heart was broken over the plight of kids entering the foster care system. She saw something that was broken and instead of just complaining about it she became God’s agent for change. I won’t take the time to tell her story now but you can find it on YouTube by searching Isiaah117house. You will see through her story how God folded her into His story in order to reach those whom He loves. He can to the same with you.
I saw a very convicting post that said, “Someone somewhere is depending on you to do what God has called you to do.” Each of us who are called by His Name are called to be a part of the peace on earth and good will towards men that was ushered in by the birth of Jesus. Be zealous for good works. You will find your life immeasurably enriched if you do so. Winston Churchill said it best. “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
“For God so loved the world.” For God so loved you! May you know the peace and joy of that Good News. Merry Christmas.