“Be Holy Until Then”
December 20, 2009 - Fourth Sunday in Advent
So what does God want for Christmas? Would His Christmas list read like that of an idealistic teenager?
1) Food and shelter for everyone.
2) World peace.
3) Joy and happiness for My family.
4) And the latest iPhone and a really cool video game player.
Now He may want at least numbers one through three, but you and I aren’t going to be able to give Him a totally warm and well-fed population or a planet at peace any time soon. Even our own joy and happiness is pretty much out of our control. And an iPhone or video game… well I was just kidding about that.
Where would you shop for God? The big and tall men’s store? No, they aren’t going to have His size. Would you buy Him a Trivial Pursuit game? No, He already knows all the answers. A nice fruit basket from Harry and David? Where would they ship it? The latest Baldacci or Patterson thriller from Borders? He’s already figured out how it ends. Shopping for God is worse than shopping for anyone else on your list.
Be a little more serious and think about what you might actually be able to give God. Maybe a list like this:
1) Repent from my sins
2) Be more kind toward others
3) Give more to people in need
4) Spend more time in prayer
5) Serve at the warming center
6) Read the Bible more
7) Eliminate a bad habit
That kind of list is a little more doable… but is it what God wants? Our text for today suggests that it may not be. If you look for God’s list in the bible, then Hebrews 10:5 puts words into the mouth of Jesus telling us what God does not want: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire.”
At church, it’s true, we’re always asking you to give more, to pray more, to serve more. And so you might get the idea that’s what God really wants. Gifts and service, modern-day sacrifices laid at His altar. But the truth is, that as good and helpful as prayer and volunteering and generous giving are, and as true as it is that God asks us to do these things and give them, they are not what’s at the top of God’s Christmas list.
In the Old Testament, God did once ask for agricultural sacrifices and offerings, lambs and sheaves of wheat laid on His altar and wine poured out on the ground. Verse 8 says that these sacrifices were offered in accordance with the law.
Yet in the end, sacrifices weren’t exactly what God wanted, not in themselves. It’s like when you ask for something once when you’re eight years old and someone keeps thinking that’s all you want. Because of a teeny bopper crush on Ron Howard, your family keeps giving you Andy Griffith DVDs. Or since you once cherished your Poo Bear, they keep buying you Winnie the Poo toys and coffee mugs and throw pillows and T-shirts, even though you’re forty years old. So God keeps getting sacrifices and offerings even though He’s long made it clear He’s after something else.
On NPR last week they did a call-in on the worst Christmas gifts ever. There was the blue toilet under the tree. A deed to a cemetery plot. The belt bucket with an LCD marquee which would flash your name for everyone to see. That’s how God sees many of our attempts to give Him gifts. Well-meaning, maybe, but oh so misguided.
So verse 5 tells us that “when Christ came into the world,” it was in part to say what God did not want any longer. All those sacrifices and offerings had never really quite been the point, and when Jesus arrived they were no longer wanted at all. What God wanted all along, even when He asked for sacrifices, was what was meant to come along with those gifts of animal flesh and threshed grain and new wine. God didn’t really want roast meat and fresh bread. He wanted willing hearts, devoted to Him in love.
God is not that different from any good parent. If you really care for your children, you don’t really want so much the gifts they give you, whether it’s a power tool you really like or a sweater you’ll never wear. What you want, what God wants, is your child’s heart to turn toward you in faithful love. Our problem is that that’s the one thing we find so difficult to offer God consistently.
Our hearts keep turning away from God. We give our offerings, we do our service, and then we go off and forget all about Him and do our own things, focus on our own desires. Our hearts run after comfort and entertainment and they get angry and jealous and lustful and greedy. Instead of loving God, we find ways to hurt each other and so hurt Him. Rather than faithfulness to our Lord, we wander off and are unfaithful to everyone, including Him. As Jeremiah the prophet said, “the human heart is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things.” Which means you and I cannot give God what He really wants for Christmas. But there is someone who can, and who has.
“Therefore, when Christ came into the world,” our text begins, “he said [that is, Jesus], ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.’” What the writer imagines Jesus saying is a quotation from Psalm 40, verse 6. But if you flip over and read that verse in the Old Testament, what it says there is “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced.” Huh? What have pierced ears got to do with it? Did Mary stop by the earring kiosk in Bethlehem and get some nice little studs for baby Jesus’?
No, the words are literally, “you have dug ears for me.” Your Bible may show a slightly better translation, “you have opened my ears.” You cleaned my ears out. You got me ready to listen. That’s what’s being suggested in the psalm. Instead of offering sacrifice, a person has open ears, ready and devoted to hearing God and doing what He really wants.
Now it gets really complicated, because in Hebrews here the open ears are changed into “a body you prepared for me.” For some reason, when Jews in the centuries before Jesus translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, they chose to translate “dug ears” as “prepared a body.” The best guess we have for the change is that if you’re going to have ears, you need a body to hang them on.
Yet the point remains pretty much the same. God doesn’t just want a few gifts, whatever they are, He wants a person completely, with His whole body, ready to love Him and do His will. That’s why the quote from Psalm 40 continues in verse 7, “Here I am. I have come to do your will.” That’s still Jesus speaking. When He came into the world, which is what we remember and celebrate this week, He came to do God’s will. And He was born as a baby because He came to do God’s will in a body as a human being. “A body you prepared for me.”
The whole Christmas story, Mary the young mother, the journey to Bethlehem, the baby in a manger, it’s all about this. “A body you prepared for me.” That’s Jesus Christ our Savior, coming to us in the body God prepared for Him through the miracle of virgin birth. He came that way to us at Christmas so that He could give God what God really wants for Christmas, so He could give God for us what we are unable to give Him, true and perfect love and devotion.
Verse 9 concludes, “He sets aside the first to establish the second.” Jesus came to set aside all those gifts we keep trying to give God which aren’t what He wants, all the sacrifices, all the offerings, all our lame and failed attempts at being good and kind and faithful. Jesus set those aside and gave it all for real. He gave God love and obedience and a perfect and holy sacrifice of Himself, His body offered up on the Cross. And that’s what God wanted for Christmas. It’s why He invented Christmas.
God gave Jesus to us so that Jesus could give to God what God wants. We can’t possibly do it by ourselves, so God made it possible for us.
I think I was about ten years old when I truly went Christmas shopping for my mother for the first time. I had some money, saved from allowances, I think. I knew what she wanted. Somebody else in our church had gotten an electric carving knife and Mom thought it was really neat. She loved gadgets. So I wanted to buy her an electric knife.
The family went shopping one Saturday at the May Company department store in West Los Angeles. While my sister and mother looked at clothes, I got permission to head over to the housewares department by myself. There I spotted a knife that looked just right to me and I had enough money for it. I finally cornered a busy clerk and told him I wanted to buy it. He rang up the sale, took my money, then grabbed the display model from the shelf and stuck it in a bag. I went off happy that I had the perfect gift.
I think my mother must have seen the shape of the knife in my bag, because she sensed there might be a problem. Gently, she questioned me about the purchase I was carrying. Reluctantly, with a few tears, because the surprise would be ruined, I opened the bag and showed her what I bought. She wondered why there was no box, no directions, no warranty paper. I hadn’t known to ask for those things.
She took my hand and we walked together back to housewares where my mother gave a little piece of her mind to the sales clerk. He had sold me the last knife of that model in the store and had failed to mention a missing box or documents and had given me no discount at all. We got my money back, then went together to another store where she helped me pick out and buy exactly the knife she wanted in a brand new, unopened box.
You and I are like my ten year old self when we want to give something to God. Without help, it gets all messed up. Our gift is not going to be what it should be. We’re not going to really please Him. So like my mother helping me shop, Christ came down alongside us so that He could, through His own perfect life, give God what you and I would like to give Him but can’t.
It might seem like my Christmas present for Mom that year was pretty lame. The money I had to buy it came from her. She provided my ride to the store. And when I tried and failed, she stepped in to set it all right. For all practical purposes, it wasn’t a gift from me at all. She gave herself that carving knife. That’s how it is with whatever we try to give God. If it turns out well, it’s because Jesus made it come out right.
The wonderful thing, however, is that if you and I forget about doing it all ourselves and accept Christmas for what it is, it’s not lame at all. Yes, Christmas is God giving Himself what He really wants by sending His Son Jesus into our world. When we realize that, and accept the gift of Jesus, and then we can offer His gift back in a way that blesses us and gives God joy.
Verse 10, the last verse of our text, tells us, “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” By coming and doing God’s will for us, Jesus made us holy, made us to be what God wants, holy people who love Him and do what He wills. Jesus didn’t just Himself give God what He wants, He made it possible for you and I to give God what He wants.
My mother essentially bought her Christmas gift for herself. But when we got home she gave the box to me. I went in my room and wrapped it. I took ribbon I thought matched the paper, tied it up and tried to curl the ends by dragging them across the flat of a scissors like Mom always did. I wrote a little card that said to “To Mom, Love Steve,” and taped it next to the bow. Then I put it under the tree to wait. When Christmas came, she tore my package open, smiled and said it was just what she wanted and gave me a hug. I felt like I really had given her that present. I felt good.
You and I are invited to take home to our own hearts the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as He did God’s will for us. He offered God the present we could never give Him by ourselves. But when we accept that awesome grace, and wrap it in our own lives, something wonderful happens. God begins to make us holy. He transforms us to make us feel and live and act like the people He wants us to be. He lets us give back to Him the gift He provided and offer it up with our own feeble hands and hearts. That’s what Mary did. God came blessing her with the gift of a baby and with a willing heart she wrapped the tiny gift in her own body saying, “May it be to me as you have said.” And she was blessed.
When we let our Lord wrap grace in us through the gift of Jesus, through His body and blood given for us, then we are blessed. We begin to be willing like Mary was willing. We begin to be what God desires, not sacrifices and offerings, but people who love Him and delight in His will. When you and I accept the real gift of Christmas, then God gets what He wanted for Christmas after all.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj