In looking back on my childhood, I remember the Christmas gifts that disappointed me, rather than the Christmas gifts that made me happy. Two instances stand out in my mind. But first let me give you some context.
I was raised right outside New York City. I was the third of four children, and my father was a physician-a general practitioner-who still made house calls. My mother used to complain about the phone calls in the middle of the night, always stressing that I shouldn't marry a doctor. One day, I believe it was in the summer, I broke out in a serious case of the hives. My father immediately gave me a cortisone shot and the crisis was averted. However, he concluded that my hives were the result of my being allergic to chocolate.
Chocolate??? For me chocolate topped the list of the staples of life above bread and water! As if that wasn't enough of a downside, whenever I was invited to a birthday party, my mother would call the parent and dutifully inform her that the cake would have to be something other than chocolate in order for Andrea to attend. You can imagine how my invitations began to decrease significantly at this point. It also meant that with every holiday, gone were the chocolate valentines, Easter bunnies, pumpkins, turkeys, Santa Clauses, and angels. Since I couldn't have chocolate, my aunt decided that she should be fair, so no one got any. You can imagine what a big hit I was with my brother and sisters.
Now back to the two gifts I alluded to earlier. In the first case, when I was in the fourth grade, good students who had worked hard were entitled to choose a gift from a surprise Christmas gift bag. I had earned this privilege. I was ready for a great gift. Wouldn't you guess it? My surprise gift was a box of chocolates! Oh, how I cried.
The second Christmas gift involves a time in November when I was home from school due to illness. However, I wasn't so sick that I couldn't sneak into my mother's closet and peruse all the gifts she had purchased for Christmas. When my eyes fixed on a particular item (and truthfully I cannot remember now what that item was), I was thrilled. I recall thinking that this was going to be the best Christmas ever.
For weeks I practiced a perfect look of surprise in the mirror for when I opened my gift. I was careful not to be too surprised, but I didn't want to look smug either. After returning home from church on Christmas Eve, as was our custom, we opened our presents at or near midnight. Although I was tired from the day's events and eager for my present, I reminded myself of the acting job that was still before me. Unfortunately I watched my older sister open my present, which I discovered had never been my present at all. Disappointed and crushed, my acting job now required I look happy and not devastated.
Needless to say, my focus and priorities at Christmas had more to do with me than appreciating the reality that the holiday commemorates: the mystery of the Son of God taking on human flesh to serve as the substitute for God's judgment of sin. It's not that the lyrics of the Christmas hymns didn't repeat this theme over and over; it was that I didn't have ears to hear.
As I grew, the Christmas season was more about vacation from school, money from relatives who couldn't figure out what to buy us, spending our money during the after Christmas sales, and the burden of getting everyone on my list a present. The words to those hymns became even dimmer. Joy to the World? Tell me, when does the joy begin!
Subsequently, some bad decisions in life, some selfish choices, and the loss of loved ones made Christmas a hodgepodge of emotions. Office parties, visits with friends and relatives, and Christmas lights and festive decorations didn't erase the giant hole that was ever present in my life-but more noticeable at Christmas.
Something was missing. There was this longing inside of me that wasn't satisfied with a husband, a son, a roof over my head, money in the bank, enough food to eat, and extended family and friends. I didn't know exactly what I was looking for, but whatever it was, I knew I didn't have it.
A stanza of the famous Isaac Watts hymn, "Joy to the World," has two lines that read like this:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
That sort of summed it up. Sins and sorrows did grow-regularly-year after year in my life. And I felt I had my share of thorns. Keep in mind, I was not poverty stricken. My family wasn't destitute. But I had no answers for life either. I knew I didn't have the capacity to keep my marriage together when we had serious problems. I knew that I couldn't control the nasty things I thought about others with whom I had disagreements. I could keep up the show, but deep down inside I knew I wasn't a very nice person. Did I feel like my life was cursed? Not all the time, but many times, I did.
So, what was that intangible something that kept evading me? Well, the remainder of that stanza I quoted above goes like this:
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
What is this curse? It's the curse of sin-the curse of separation from the God who made us. Is it widespread? Yes, indeed. And in today's world the evidences are all around us-people losing their homes, their jobs, and their retirement; marriages ending in divorce; children at odds with their parents. Where is this curse not found?
But here's the good news. Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, is the "He" who is referenced in the hymn, "Joy to the World," who came to make His blessings flow. How? By removing the curse. How did he do that? By acting as the substitute, the Perfect Substitute, and taking on the punishment we all deserve for our offenses and transgressions.
That's what was missing. That's what I had been longing for. Forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation with my Creator. And, He didn't wait for me to approach Him; He used the circumstances of my life to draw me to Himself.
So, the lights, the gifts, the singing, the celebration are all about this glorious Light coming into darkness and shattering it. When you travel down the street and see all sorts of festive decorations, know that the true meaning behind them is a welcoming of the Babe born in that little town of Bethlehem. It's about responding to the call to be counted among the faithful, the joyful and triumphant. It's to comprehend that on that O holiest of nights, the night of the dear Savior's birth, the world was given the gift of salvation-the gift of redemption-and that is why both heaven and nature were singing.
That breach, that chasm, that I wasn't able to hurdle, was repaired by Jesus Christ. When the reality of Christ's atoning death became real to me, it was like getting a new lease on life. That's why it is called New Birth. In the process, not only did I need to face up to those sins in my life that had injured others, I needed to acknowledge that, apart from divine help, I'd keep doing those same things over and over. In other words, I had every reason to feel guilty, because I was guilty.
It probably would make a better holiday movie script if I could report that things went swimmingly for me after my conversion. At first, it actually got harder. I needed to reorder my thoughts, words, and deeds. God's grace was the essential component, but the fellowship of other believers was also necessary. The most significant change in me was that after that point in my life, I found that I didn't harbor hatred in my heart even towards people who had done me harm. Something was different. I was different and my attention turned from being served to desiring to serve others.
I guess you could say that the problem with my Christmas gift memories was that I wasn't going far enough back in time to the most significant gift ever given in the history of the world-the day Salvation was born.
That hole that I described is not unique to me. And, those bad decisions, selfish choices, and repeated disappointments are not unique to me either. But the best part of the good news is that the gift of salvation is freely offered; there is nothing you can do to purchase it except admit your need of it and receive it as the gift it is.
As Charles Spurgeon said so well:
Whereas every other salesman finds that he cannot get his customers up to his price, our difficulty is that we cannot get ours down to our price.
Here are the terms, and the only terms, upon which the gospel of grace is to be had, "without money and without price."
You shall have it freely, but God will have none of your bargaining.1
And that's what we all want to do with God. We want to negotiate with Him. We want to bring our talents, our accomplishments, our thinking to Him. A person who recognizes his total inability is only capable of bringing his sins to Christ and laying them down before Him.
What sorts of things do we lay down? We lay down disloyalties, infidelities, envy, thefts, abortions, adulteries, fraud, deceptions, pettiness, greed, cut throat attitudes, self righteousness, and hypocrisies. And, I've only listed but a few.
When we stop believing in our own efforts and believe on Him, that burden that is common to us all can be lifted. It is too heavy for us. Our arms are too weak. But His are strong. And because Christmas is a celebration of God becoming man, we can be assured that Jesus understands these sins for, although He never succumbed to them, He was tempted just as we are and He prevailed over them (Heb. 4:15).
As individuals, families, communities, and nations embrace this very personal reality, the curse, which we are all too familiar with, will dissipate. Then, indeed joyful will all nations rise, as they join the triumph of the skies in proclamation, "Christ is born in Bethlehem, glory to the newborn King!"
Do I still experience difficulty in my life with family and friends? Yes. Do I still struggle with checking gifts off my Christmas list? Yes, but Internet shopping has made that a whole lot easier. Do I still need to come to terms with the unsanctified nastiness that still shows up every time I wake up in the morning? Yes, but I don't have to deal with it alone. And, that hole, that longing that was with me from my childhood, is a distant memory of a time before I finally really heard and appreciated the words:
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And the wonders of his love.2
That King of kings and Lord of lords came to earth without fanfare because His mission was not to impress but to save.
There was no room for Him, once long ago,
Only a cold and drafty barn, and, like a blow,
The smell of dung did greet
Him, Who came from heaven, none to meet
Him, save the displaced cows and sheep
Whose restless night disturbed His sleep.
Only some sheep men came to pray.
No scholars came to mark the day.
Still as of old the world denies
Room to its King and from Him shies,
The Cross His only gift from men
And man as brutal now as then.
Lord, if again a barn do not offend Thee,
This dung and filth would comprehend Thee,
Here is my heart, with its unclean floor
A barn to house Thee, as of yore.3
2. Isaac Watts, "Joy to the World," 1719.
3. R.J. Rushdoony, "A Barn to House Thee," 1951 (used with permission).