Jesus, Proof of God's Love (Luke 20:9-19; 1 John 4:9-10)

If you have a Bible with you, please open it to Luke 20.

We've been going behind the scenes this Christmas. The Christmas story is astounding, but I find that I'm so familiar with it that it's easy to lose the wonder of what really happened. That's why this year, we've been going behind the scenes. We've been looking at the rest of the story.

If you were here two weeks ago, we looked at the fact that Jesus came at just the right time. Conditions were perfect; God said, "It's time." Last week, we looked at the generosity of Jesus in coming to earth. He was rich - we looked at how rich - yet for our sakes, he became poor.

Today we're going to look at another story behind the story. It's not usually one that we think of at Christmas, but it does capture the big picture behind why Jesus came to earth. It also warns us of the greatest danger that we face as we approach Christmas.

Let me give you some background to the story. It was the last week of Jesus' earthly life. Jesus knew that his death was imminent. He was constantly clashing with the religious leaders of the day. Right before he told this story, the religious leaders questioned Jesus' authority. They asked him, ""By whose authority did you drive out the merchants from the Temple? Who gave you such authority?" (Luke 20:2). They were challenging his ministry.

Jesus responded, and then told the story we're about to read. Jesus told a lot of parables and stories. This one is almost allegorical. It answers their objections, but it also gives us the reason he came to earth. The story was so direct, that everyone seemed to understand what it meant right away. We don't usually think of it in terms of Christmas, but it's easy to see how it relates. Let's try to unpack it and see how it applies to Christmas.

Verse 9 says, "Now Jesus turned to the people again and told them this story: 'A man planted a vineyard, leased it out to tenant farmers, and moved to another country to live for several years.'" The whole act of planting a vineyard was an act of faith for the landowner. It used untried soil, and involved great expense. You had to build a winepress and a watchtower. It would take four years of cultivation before the vines began to bear grapes. It was definitely a long-term venture.

The landowner would support the farmers, buy manure and supplies, hoping that in the fifth year he might turn a profit. While the vineyard was being cultivated, the man would probably not be in close contact. In this case, he disappeared for a few years. Let's see what happens after that period is over.

Verse 10 says, "At grape-picking time, he sent one of his servants to collect his share of the crop. But the farmers attacked the servant, beat him up, and sent him back empty-handed." This is probably the fifth year now. The servant shows up to receive the income from the vineyard. Contacts between the owner and the tenants had probably been minimal. You can see how bad attitudes may have developed: "We've done all the work. He hasn't even called, except to collect the money."

The landowner wasn't even asking for a lot: just a sample of the fruit. But it didn't go well at all. We don't know why there was such hostility; they probably thought they owned the land. Things continued to escalate. Verses 11-12: "So the owner sent another servant, but the same thing happened; he was beaten up and treated shamefully, and he went away empty-handed. A third man was sent and the same thing happened. He, too, was wounded and chased away."

This story is also included in two other Gospels. They probably came with copies of the original agreement, which spelled out the terms of the relationship. In Mark's account, more servants were sent, and some of them were even killed. The message: the tenants had no intention of paying the income from the harvest. They were claiming possession of the crop.

Question: What would you have done? I know what I would have done. There were lots of options. The man who owned the land could have met force with force. I would have hired some mercenaries or something. He could have declared the contract null and void, as the farmers had done. He could have pursued legal options. But that's not what he did.

The man thought, "The problem is that they think they're the rightful possessors of the property. Surely, when they're confronted with somebody from my family, they'll recognize my authority and finally respect the agreement." He did the unimaginable: instead of meeting them with force or hostility, he sent his son.

Verse 13 says, "'What will I do?' the owner asked himself. 'I know! I'll send my cherished son. Surely they will respect him.'" You know what's going to happen next, don't you? Verses 14-15: "But when the farmers saw his son, they said to each other, 'Here comes the heir to this estate. Let's kill him and get the estate for ourselves!' So they dragged him out of the vineyard and murdered him."

It's possible that when they saw the son coming, they guessed that the owner had died, and the son had taken his place. If that were the case, then little would stand in the way of full possession of the vineyard if the son was out of the way. They could say, "We haven't paid rent in years; the legitimate owner has died; we've cultivated the crops; it's ours."

So they kill the son and take inheritance. But they don't kill him within the vineyard; they kill him outside, so that they don't defile the vineyard. They killed him, and then they left the body just lying there.

They made a terrible mistake. They had gone to far. Finally, the owner's patience finally ran out. Verse 15 says, "'What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do to those farmers?' Jesus asked. 'I'll tell you-he will come and kill them all and lease the vineyard to others.'" He did what I probably would have done in the first place.

The people to whom Jesus told this story immediately got the point. Verse 16 says, "'But God forbid that such a thing should ever happen,' his listeners protested." It's not a happy story. It's not one you would pick to read on Christmas morning. But the religious leaders got the point. Verse 19: "When the teachers of religious law and the leading priests heard this story, they wanted to arrest Jesus immediately because they realized he was pointing at them-that they were the farmers in the story."

The Story Behind the Story

Jesus was saying, "Let me give you the story behind my arrival in earth. Let me give you the story behind Christmas."

From the creation of the world, God's desire has always been to be in relationship with us as people. If you read the Bible, from Genesis 3 on, it's the story of us resisting God and fighting him. Even today: our lives are generally in opposition to God.

But God didn't leave us alone. The Bible is full of stories of God sending his servants - prophets, teachers, leaders - to his people, so that his relationship with us could be restored.

Here's the Bible in a nutshell: God reaches out, we reject him, God reaches out again. Next chapter: God reaches out, we reject him, God reaches out again. That's a pretty good summary of the Bible from Genesis 3 to the end of the Old Testament. It's our pattern time after time. And yet God continues to reach out, he continues to send his servants and his prophets.

How were the prophets received? Not too well. They were stoned, killed by sword, put in stocks, beheaded. They were sawn in half. Hebrews 11:38 says, "The world was not worthy of them." Tradition says that most prophets ended up being killed. If God picked you to be a prophet, you'd pretty well know how it was going to end up. "We've never yet had a prophet who outlived the pension plan."

Time after time, God reaches out, and time after time, we reject him. How did God, who created this world perfect, and us sinless, react to this continual rejection? Not by breaking the relationship with us. Not by meeting force with force. He responded by sending his Son - his only begotten Son (means: "o ne and only" - used of an only child, unique, highly praised).

This is the story behind Christmas: God said, "Nothing else had worked. I'm not ready to give up yet. Maybe they'll listen to my Son. Maybe they'll recognize his authority."

Here's what's amazing. God could have said, "I've sent all these others, they rejected them; surely they will reject my Son too. They don't deserve another chance." God knew Jesus would face rejection and death, but he sent him anyway.

Christmas is all about the seemingly unending patience of God that's extended to those who oppose him - a patience that ends only when we reject his greatest gift, the gift of his one and only Son.

God said, "Even though they've rejected me, I'll send my Son -that which is most precious and unique to me - so that I can have a relationship with them."

There's another verse that fleshes this out some more. 1 John 4:9-10 says, "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."

"Showed his love" literally means to reveal something that was previously hidden. That's what Christmas is about. It's the unveiling of God's heart. It's something that God has never done before. He never did it for the angels. But for us, he sent his Son, his one and only Son. God's love for us initiated the sending of Jesus. It shows us his unlimited patience and love for those who had rejected him time after time.

It also contains a warning for us. What's our track record like in receiving God's gifts in the past? Pretty poor. We don't receive God's servants and prophets very well. We have a history of rejecting them and killing them. Human nature is to mistake and reject God's gift, but God sent him anyway. God sent us his best. There's no one left to send after Jesus; there's nothing better to give. The greatest mistake would be to fail to recognize who Jesus is, to fail to respond appropriately.

It's my wedding anniversary today. We've been married twelve years. We haven't hit the peaks yet like some of you - 40 or 50 years. But Charlene's done pretty well staying married to me for this long.

I sometimes feel that a lot of life is like a giant male conspiracy against women. A lot of things just seem to be weighted in favor of men. But whoever invented the traditional anniversary gift list had to be a female. There's very little on that list that a guy cares about.

This year, it's pearls and silk. I thought I would be generous this year and spend a grand total of $100 buying my wife a wonderful pearl or silk present. I thought, "I know were I can go to get a good, reasonably priced gift!" So I went to Birks. My wife had warned me that she doesn't like fresh-water pearls, so I went to Birks to look for cultured ones with my budget of $100.

I asked to see a bracelet. The lady showed it to me, and explained that the fresh-water pearls go up to $1,000, and the cultured pearls start from there and go up. She then asked me what my budget was. I hummed and hawed a little. At one point, she asked me when my anniversary was. I faced a choice. I could either tell her that we were celebrating our anniversary tomorrow, and I couldn't afford her overpriced, snobbish jewelry. Or, I could lie and tell her it wasn't for a couple weeks. As your spiritual leader, I knew what to do. I lied. I know, I was wrong. I blew it.

I looked around for silk sheets and found that they're $600 and up per sheet. Who sleeps in these things? Finally, I found a nice pearl bracelet for more than I had planned to spend, but everything looked cheap after Birks.

Here's the point. It's easy to mistake the value of something. It's easy to see something that's valuable, and have no real idea of its worth. It's human nature, in fact, to not recognize the value of God's gifts, especially the greatest gift that he could have given: the gift of his Son.

Suppose I had given Charlene this gift, but she had lost it or broke it. Then next year, I give her a more expensive gift, and she leaves it behind in the restaurant. Year after year, I keep giving her more gifts, but she either rejects them or undervalues them. Eventually, the gifts would stop.

God never did. Even though we rejected gift after gift, God said, "I know what I'll do. I'll send them my best." Don't mistake the value of the one who came at Christmas. Don't reject the last and best gift he will offer.

Prayer:

Thank you for the coming of Jesus, the proof of your love. Thanks for the gift of your one and only Son, the unveiling of God's heart, the proof of your love.

Commitment to respond by giving you our lives.

Jesus the Generous God (2 Corinthians 8:9)

One of the challenges at Christmas is to keep the story fresh. Every year, we hear the same story over again - shepherds, angels, wise men, Joseph, Mary, Jesus. It's really the most unbelievable story. The tragedy is that the story can become so familiar that it loses its impact. That's why, this year, we've been looking at the back story - at texts we don't usually read at Christmas. Today we're going to look at another unusual Christmas story. If you have a Bible with you, I invite you to open it to 2 Corinthians 8.

Those of you who have had young children, or are close to young kids, probably have experienced something that I have. One of the things I remember being praised for as a kid was generosity. Most kids I know are extremely generous at times - sometimes to an extreme. Over time, it seems that we lose that generosity.

Today's Christmas story begins with a quality that we associate with Christmas - generosity. Yet the story begins long before Christmas had anything to do with gift-giving.

Here's the situation. Paul spent a lot of time trying to help a need among believers in Jerusalem. The reason was because the church in Jerusalem was facing a severe need. They were poor; they needed help. A number of factors contributed to the problem. As believers, they were ostracized. Because they were Jewish, they had to pay two taxes (Jewish and Roman). In addition, their geographic area was experiencing food shortages in Palestine. To top it all off, the Jerusalem church was full of large number of believers and visiting Christians.

Around 54 AD, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth to follow up with questions they had asked about the collection for the poor in Jerusalem. For whatever reason, the collection for the poor had been halted. Paul writes to encourage their generosity.

What can Paul do to encourage them to be generous? They weren't rich themselves - how could he encourage them to be generous with others?

In the first 4 verses, and again in verse 8, Paul tries to motivate their generosity by giving the example of the Macedonian churches. Then, in verse 6-7, he mentions their own generous past. Then Paul plays the trump card of generosity. You can't get any more generous than this:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9 NIV)

If you really want to be generous, Paul says, forget the example of other people. Think about the extreme generosity of Jesus Christ, the generous God. Paul's talking about the birth of Jesus as a baby - his decision to become human.

Let's unpack what Paul says, and then see what it could possibly mean for our lives.

"He was rich"

What does it mean that he was rich?

Jesus once prayed, "And now, Father, bring me into the glory we shared before the world began" (John 17:5). Even when he was on earth, he remembered what it was like before. He remembered his position, all that he had in heaven.

When you think about it, Jesus was incredibly rich. He's eternal. He's before all things. He made everything. There was no period in which he wasn't God. In every category you can think of, he was rich.

Possessions - What do you get the God who already has everything? Jesus owns it all. The Grand Canyon; Yosemite Park; all the oceans; the most beautiful settings you've seen; the oceans, the galaxies - they're all his. Psalm 50 says, "If I were hungry, I would not mention it to you, for all the world is mine and everything in it."

Creative Ability - Even if Jesus had lacked, he could have spoken it into existence. Psalm 33:9 says, "For when he spoke, the world began! It appeared at his command." Hebrews 1:10 says of Jesus, "Lord, in the beginning you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands." Colossians 1:15-17 says:

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before God made anything at all and is supreme over all creation. Christ is the one through whom God created everything in heaven and earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can't see-kings, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities. Everything has been created through him and for him. He existed before everything else began, and he holds all creation together.

Not only did Jesus create everything, but he's holding it all together. Creation would fly apart without his direct involvement, minute by minute.

Honor - There's no question of his honor. The song we sing, Open the Eyes of My Heart, would be sung cautiously in heaven, because God's glory was a fearsome thing. Nobody ever saw the glory of Jesus without being terrified. We can't imagine how glorious he was and is in heaven. Listen to Revelation 5:11-14:

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:

"Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!"

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:

"To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!"

The four living creatures said, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshiped.

That's why Jesus could talk about the glory he shared with his Father. Jesus remembered how rich he had been.

Christmas is about Jesus laying aside all of that for us. The Bible talks about a decision he made. Even though he was God, he didn't hold on to his rights as God. Instead, he voluntarily gave up his privilege and his wealth for our sakes. "Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form" (Philippians 2:6-7). He became poor for our sakes.

"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9 NIV).

"He became poor"

Somebody's said that we don't know how this news was announced to the angels, but we can imagine how amazed they would have been. What does it mean that he become poor when he came to earth?

Body - John 1:14 says, "So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us." Angels witnessed God's Son become an embryo planted in the uterus of an impoverished, unmarried teenage girl. The Creator of the universe became 1 mm small - 0.04 of an inch. I can imagine an angel saying, "Where'd Jesus go? Where was the one all of heaven was just praising?" "He's there - a tiny embryo in a teenage girl. He's gone to earth."

Jesus didn't become just a human, but he became an infant. Hands which formed galaxies and set stars in place, hands which had spun the world on its axis, now waved around clumsily. The mouth that had spoken worlds into existence, now just babbling and cooing.

Mind - Luke 2:52 says, "So Jesus grew both in height and in wisdom, and he was loved by God and by all who knew him." This means that Jesus grew in his understanding. When he came to earth, he restricted his understanding, so there were things he had to learn. He had to learn how to speak. Mary probably told him, "Not again, Jesus! I told you to get to the toilet sooner." Jesus grew in wisdom.

Relationships - When he was born, he was dependent on a man and a woman to care for him. He had parents who were human and flawed, even though he was the Son of God. Joseph and Mary probably fought over who was going to get up in the middle of the night to look after him. Joseph probably came home grumpy from work some days. This is the King of the universe, and yet he's dependent on two teenage parents to look after him.

Hebrews 5:8 says, "So even though Jesus was God's Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered." Jesus learned obedience through his life and his death. How frustrating to have to submit to inferiors. Yet Jesus submitted to his parents. He learned obedience.

Jesus was so fully human that those who lived and worked with him for 30 years, even his brothers who grew up with him in his own household, did not realize that he was anything more than a very good human being. Even worse, he became subject to ridicule from people - the very people he had made.

Emotional Limitations - Jesus came up against his emotional limitations. John 12:27 says, "Now my soul is deeply troubled." The Message paraphrase says, "Right now I am storm-tossed." Hebrews 5:7 says, "While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could deliver him out of death."

Physical Limitations - Jesus experienced physical limitations. He got tired. He had to sit down to rest (John 4:6). He was so tired once that he even fell asleep during a storm. He was thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Matthew 4:2). When he fasted, angels had to come "minister to him" (Matthew 4:11). He couldn't carry his own cross the whole way (Luke 23:26)

Death - Not only did Jesus humble himself by becoming human; he gave us his life for us. Amazing - "And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal's death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8).

It says something when

the King of the Universe enters the world not in a palace, but in an animal-filled cave

he who made the world assists his father in the craft of carpentry

he who made all the food went hungry, and relied on others to feed him, and who said to a Samaritan woman, "Please give me a drink." (John 4:6)

The one who lived in glory in heaven said, "Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but I, the Son of Man, have no home of my own, not even a place to lay my head." (Matthew 8:20)

The one who was waited on by angels took a towel and washes his disciple's feet

Isaiah 53:3-6 says:

He was despised and rejected-a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped, and we were healed! All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God's paths to follow our own. Yet the LORD laid on him the guilt and sins of us all. (Isaiah 53)

Paul said, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9 NIV).

He did this for whom? "For your sakes..." So that by his life, by his death, by his resurrection, we could be forgiven our sins and be raised to new life. He did it so that we could become his joint-heirs in receiving everything that he had - so we could become rich.

Here, in brief, is the Christmas story. Word gets around that the God of the universe, the creator of all things, is about to enter into the world, not even into a comfortable middle-class life, but into the depths of poverty and suffering. As God said, "It's time," the angels must have been saying, "I can't believe this is happening."

Two applications today:

I like to think I'm generous. I'm not rich by any stretch of the imagination. It's easy to think I'm doing my part; I'm giving; I sponsor a World Vision child. But token generosity is not enough. Even radical generosity, by human standards, isn't enough. If this is the example of generosity, how generous ought I to be? I have no right to live for myself - small tokens of generosity only.

Paul wrote this passage to encourage the Corinthians to give generously to those in need. Jesus is our model of generosity - in giving up our riches so that others can be rich. That's a pretty high standard.

But here's a second application: how we ought to praise Jesus for what he did. The generosity of God has more to say about him than about me. God's generosity has more to say about his character than his worthiness.

The only fitting response: to praise him.

O come let us adore Him.
O come let us adore Him.
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord

For He alone is worthy.
For He alone is worthy.
For He alone is worthy, Christ the Lord

We give Him all the glory.
We give Him all the glory.
We give Him all the glory, Christ the Lord.

Jesus at the Right Time (Galatians 4:1-7)

There's lots to like at this time of year: traditions, time with family, time off work, and of course, remembering the birth of Jesus Christ. But there's also a lot not to like: shopping, crowds, stress, too much food.

This may be a surprise, but some of us pastors find it stressful to preach at Christmas. I've preached at least forty Christmas messages. I think I've covered all the stories. I've probably said everything profound about Christmas that I'm going to say. It's hard to do justice to such a significant story.

So for this past year, I've been collecting passages of Scripture from the New Testament that talk about Christmas - not the story of Christmas we're all used to (shepherds, magi), but the story behind the story. I want to look for a few weeks at the back-story of Christmas, by looking at some passages that we don't usually consider Christmas passages - but they are.

The Story

If you have a Bible, open it to Galatians 4 with me. Today's story is about growing up. Every parent dreams about the day that their child is going to grow up. Babies are cute, but it would get a little tiring if babies stayed babies forever. Even kids can't wait to grow up. They dream about getting jobs, working, what they're going to do when they become adults. We tell them to enjoy being kids, but they can't wait until they're all grown up.

Somewhere, sometime, our kids pass from being children to adults. The marker's different for all of us - sometimes it's graduation, buying a car, moving out, getting married. I knew that I had become an adult when something significant happened in my relationship with my mother. She spent a huge amount of energy when I was a kid trying to get me to do dishes. Now, I go to visit her and she spends a huge amount of energy trying to stop me from doing dishes. Somehow I've become a guest in her home. That's a marker that I've passed to adulthood.

Today's story is rooted in a time in which growing up had great significance in society, religion, and the law.

For instance, in Judaism a boy passed from adolescence to manhood shortly after his twelfth birthday, at which time he became "a son of the law."

In the Greek world the minor came of age later, at about eighteen, but there was the same emphasis on an entering into full responsibility as an adult. At this age, at the festival of the Apatouria, the child passed from the care of his father to the care of the state and was responsible to it.

Roman society was different. In Roman society, the father decided when a child would become an adult. Every year, on March 17, Romans held a festival called the Liberalia. At this feast, if the father thought his son was ready, he would be formally adopted by the father as his acknowledged son and heir. He would receive new clothes, called toga virilis. After this ceremony, the son was considered to have come of age. He had new rights, new responsibilities. You can imagine the kids wondering as March 17 approached if this would be the year they would become adults.

Paul's about to paint a word picture of our relationship with God using the concept of growing up - passing from a period of childhood to adulthood in the eyes of God.

The story begins in Galatians 4:1-2: "What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father" (NIV).

The picture here is of a very small child who is heir of a big estate. As long as he's a child, though, he's essentially no different from a slave in the eyes of the law. He can't make decisions. He has no freedom. He's subject to what his guardians and trustees say, until he reaches the age at which his father decides that he's an adult.

Paul uses this as a picture of our condition before Christmas, before Jesus came to earth. He says, "And that's the way it was with us before Christ came. We were slaves to the spiritual powers of this world" (Galatians 4:3). The word Paul uses for "spiritual powers" is hard to understand. It literally means elements. Some people think he's talking about the elements that people understood then: earth, air, fire, and water. That's a lot easier than the table of elements that we use today. People believed in gods for each of the elements. Paul's talking about people's spiritual beliefs in gods that don't even exist - wrong religious understandings.

Then Paul explains what God did to change this situation, in an absolutely amazing verse. "But when the right time came, God sent his Son [fully God], born of a woman [fully human], subject to the law [God promised to act within Israel]" (Galatians 4:4).

I love the phrase, "when the right time came." It's as if God were like a father who saw March 17 coming and said, "It's time. It's time that my kids received their rights. It's time that they received the full privileges of being my children." This was the time that God sovereignly chose to act.

But it was also the right time in another sense. God had been preparing the historical and cultural conditions of that age to be the perfect time for his Son to arrive. We think we live in a time of rapid change and innovation. The world at that time had experienced a technical and social revolution that made it perfect for Jesus to come to earth. The world was united under Roman rule - something called pax Romana, Roman peace. Roads lined the Roman empire, making travel and commerce possible in a way that hadn't been before. The world spoke a common language - Greek - making communication much easier. On top of all this, people were spiritually hungry. Time could not have been better for God to send his son - Jesus at just the right time

Why did Jesus come? This is the purpose behind Christmas: "God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children" (Galatians 4:5). God intervened in history to change our relationship with him. He redeemed us. This means that he came to buy us out of slavery. We were slaves either to the religious law (as Jews), or to wrong religious understandings. Jesus came to buy us out of this slavery.

Jesus also came so God could adopt us, move us into his family, with all the rights of being his children. Romans 8:17 describes us this way: "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ."

In verse 6, Paul moves all the way from the birth of Christ to the Day of Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit was given to the church: "Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father.'" God's given us the Holy Spirit, so we can experience what Jesus has already made us - his children, in an intimate relationship with God. "Calls out" here is like a cry of anguish. It's like when my son gets hurt - he comes running to me. I'm always sorry he gets hurt, but I'm also glad that I'm the one he's running to. Paul gives us the picture of God's children crying out to him, running to him, calling him by the most intimate term of fatherhood.

Because Jesus came, at just the right time, we're his children, his heirs.

The story of Christmas is of God saying to his Son, "It's time. It's not only the right time in history, it's also time to set my children free from bondage and obligation. It's time for them to become my full-fledged children, to receive my inheritance."

Application

Two applications for us today. The first is for those of us who are waiting. You may be single and waiting for marriage. You may be waiting and hoping for children. You may be stuck in a job you can't wait to get out of. You may be in a tough marriage, and you're just waiting for things to get better. I know as pastor, I'm always impatient for things to happen faster with church. For those of us who are waiting, sometimes impatiently, here's the first application: God is the God of perfect timing. "When the right time came..." God is always the God of perfect timing.

Here's the second a pplication. The whole reason for Christmas is this: God wants you to be his child. God wants that kind of relationship with you. He wants you to experience the intimacy, the privileges, that come from being his child. "Now you are no longer a slave but God's own child. And since you are his child, everything he has belongs to you" (Galatians 4:7).

Prayer:

Thanks that you are the God of perfect timing.

Thanks for sending your Son - that the purpose of Christmas is that we could be your children, in a new relationship with you.

About That Check... (Philippians 4:10-23)

No matter who you are, I think we have a couple of things in common when it comes to money. First, we don't have enough of it. I've never met a person who thinks they have enough money. If I'm wrong, then make yourself known - some people want to talk to you. For most of us, we wish we had more money so we could do more to make ends meet.

There's something else we have in common. We believe that money is an intensely personal issue. I remember a few years ago, my wife talked me into having a financial planner come by. I resisted. I didn't want anybody poking my nose in my money. It turned out to be one of the smartest things that we ever did financially, but there is a resistance to talking about our finances with others.

That means that every time the preacher talks about money in church, we cringe. They can say all they want that they're just trying to help, or they're just teaching what the Bible says about money, but we don't buy it. We know it's not that simple. Preachers have mixed motives, and most of the time we end up feeling either used or guilty. Money's always been a sensitive topic, especially at church.

Today we're completing our study of Philippians. One of the main reasons that Paul wrote this letter was to thank the Philippians for the financial gift that they gave him. You got a hint of that in Philippians 1:5, when he thanked them for their partnership with him. This is really the first missionary thank-you letter.

But you'll notice that Paul hasn't talked a lot about money. Here we are at the very end of this book, and he's hardly brought it up. Paul felt some tension. He knew what God taught about those who work in the ministry. "In the same way, the Lord gave orders that those who preach the Good News should be supported by those who benefit from it." (1 Corinthians 9:14). On the other hand, he knew that some people preached just to make money, just like today. He said, "We are not like those hucksters-and there are many of them-who preach just to make money" (2 Corinthians 2:17). That's why he was very careful when he talked about money. Paul said, "We are careful to be honorable before the Lord, but we also want everyone else to know we are honorable" (2 Corinthians 8:21).

Paul wanted to thank the Philippians, but he didn't want to leave them the wrong impression about his motives. As we're going to see, Paul's attitude toward money teaches us a lot, not just about money, but the attitude that we can carry in life no matter what circumstances we're in.

Money and Giving

Let's read what Paul says as he thanks the Philippians for their gift:

How grateful I am, and how I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but for a while you didn't have the chance to help me...

As you know, you Philippians were the only ones who gave me financial help when I brought you the Good News and then traveled on from Macedonia. No other church did this. Even when I was in Thessalonica you sent help more than once. I don't say this because I want a gift from you. What I want is for you to receive a well-earned reward because of your kindness.

At the moment I have all I need-more than I need! I am generously supplied with the gifts you sent me with Epaphroditus. They are a sweet-smelling sacrifice that is acceptable to God and pleases him. (Philippians 4:10,15-18)

Paul's grateful for their help...sort of. Paul essentially says, "Thanks for the gift, not that I really needed it - but don't get the wrong idea. I'm grateful!" Paul's attitude toward the gift is completely different from what we expect.

Question: When we support a ministry, who benefits? We usually think it's the ministry. Paul tells us differently. Sure, the ministry benefits. But we benefit more. Here's the first key from this passage: My financial support of ministry benefits me at least as much as it benefits the ministry. Let's look at how this works.

God doesn't need our money. God's never said, "I only wish I could do this, if only I had the money!" God doesn't have a resource problem. Sure, God can use us to supply his ministries, but God's options aren't limited. Although we usually give to a church or ministry for this reason, God's purposes don't require human support.

God has a deeper purpose for our giving. God understands that money isn't neutral in our lives. There's a pull in all of us to be controlled by our money. Do you ever get the feeling that you're not managing your money, but you're money is managing you? It doesn't matter who you are, but your money isn't just a neutral thing. Jesus said that there's an inherent spiritual danger in our money. It'll start to control us, and we'll begin to serve it. Money isn't neutral.

I saw this the other night. I've wanted a DVD player for ages. Not a fancy one, just a $100 special. Charlene and I agreed that we'd wait until Christmas. Then, the other night, she said, "We have too much junk." I said, "Yup." She said, "We don't really need more stuff." I saw where this was going, but I said, "Yup." Then she said, "What if we didn't buy gifts this Christmas, but instead gave the money to Samaritan's Purse?" I said, "You mean, besides the DVD player?" I don't even own a DVD player yet, but it owns me. That's the way it is with money and possessions. They're not neutral. They begin to control us.

There's only one way to counter our stuff's hold on us. It's to give it away. It's the most unnatural thing to do with money. When we give money away, we benefit. It loosens money's grip on our heart. There's something spiritual that happens when we give to support what God is doing, and there's benefit to us as well as the ministry we support.

Paul puts it this way. "I am looking for what may be credited to your account" (Philippians 4:17 NIV). He uses the picture of money that's invested and is compounding. "They are a sweet-smelling sacrifice that is acceptable to God and pleases him" (Philippians 4:18). It's a spiritual act of worship that pleases God. There's something that happens when we give, and it isn't all about the ministry we're supporting. My financial support of ministry benefits me at least as much as it benefits the ministry.

Money and Contentment

That's why Paul made it clear that he didn't really rely on their gift. Money wasn't much of an issue for Paul. Paul wrote:

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to get along happily whether I have much or little. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need. But even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty. (Philippians 4:11-14)

This was the part that the Philippians might have misunderstood. Paul wasn't ungrateful for their financial gift. He did believe that they benefited from giving, but Paul wanted to be clear: he wasn't relying on their gifts. Here's the second key: My happiness doesn't depend on my circumstances. Paul's happiness wasn't a product of his financial situation. Paul was content when he was rich, and when he was poor. You don't need money to be content.

Paul says, "I have learned to get along happily." Another version says, "I have learned to be content." Some in Paul's day believed that contentment - literally, self-sufficiency - was the best personal virtue anyone could have. Paul possessed this attribute, but he didn't find this attribute in himself, but in Christ. "I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me strength." Paul knew contentment even in the worst of circumstances. The Message says, "I'm glad in God, far happier than you would ever guess" (Philippians 4:10).

I got thinking about Paul's contentment this week. He was in prison, but he didn't care. He faced possib le death, but he was happy. People - other believers - were criticizing him, but it didn't matter. Paul knew contentment no matter what was going on around him.

The same day I thought about this, I had an unpleasant conversation with somebody. My contentment went out the window pretty quickly. Here's a man who's in jail and facing death, and he's content. Then there's me - one bad conversation and I'm done. Paul teaches me that I don't need to be appreciated or well-off to be content. I can be content no matter what circumstances I face.

About the only way I know to apply this is to take time to center daily on what can't be taken away - my strength and sufficiency in Jesus Christ. We're all facing different challenges here. Some of us are in tough marriages. We've tried, but nothing seems to change. Some of us have health problems. Some may be in rough financial shape. I don't know what you're facing, but we're all facing something. No matter what situation you're in, you can have contentment. You can be content even in the most unimaginable circumstances of life.

Money and God's Provision

Paul continues: "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:19)

There's the third key: God's generosity always exceeds my own. You can't out-give God. As we learn to give, to counter money's control over our hearts, and as we become less dependent on the amount of money we have and more content, we can remember: God will meet all our needs. He's more than able to look after me. God is able and willing to meet our needs.

This verse has been abused. Some people think that God is promising material blessing if we follow him. God doesn't promise that we'll live rich, comfortable lives. He does promise that he'll always meet our needs. I've heard two stories already today on how God's been doing this.

Sometimes what God provides isn't always what we want. Sometimes obedience to God's will leads to deprivation, even to the point of death. Part of what God provides is the ability to face any circumstance.

Paul, who wrote this passage, was ultimately killed for his faith. We serve a God who sent his own Son to die. Christianity is all about the life that comes from death. Jesus asked two of his disciples, "Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of sorrow I am about to drink?" (Matthew 20:22). We will suffer. Paul himself wrote in Philippians, "For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him" (Philippians 1:29).

I've come to realize that there's a lot in life I can't control. I can't control how well the church goes. It may grow, it may flop; I can't control it. I can't control what people think of me. I can't control my health. We can't control our jobs, our families, pretty well anything.

When you get right down to it, there are only two things we can control: our passion and contentment. We can't control much, but we, like Paul, can control how passionately we live our commitment to Jesus Christ. We can control our contentment, no matter what circumstances we face.

The Message paraphrase says, "Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am" (Philippians 4:12-13).

This passage is about more than money. It's about freedom - freedom from being enslaved to money and circumstances; freedom to know that no matter what we're going through, no matter what we face, we can control two things - our passion and contentment. We can make it, through the One who makes us who we are.

Paul concludes with these words:

Give my greetings to all the Christians there. The brothers who are with me here send you their greetings. And all the other Christians send their greetings, too, especially those who work in Caesar's palace.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (Philippians 4:21-23)

Prayer

First, to give, release what's holding us - money, whatever else

Second, to experience contentment and passion no matter what we're going through