The Gifts of Christmas
December 8th, 1974 @ 10:50 AM
THE GIFTS OF CHRISTMAS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-8-74 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Gifts of Christmas. In the second chapter of the Book of Matthew is the beautiful and, no less famous, familiar story of the coming of the wise men, the magi, Parsee priests, Zoroastrians. Isn’t it a great wonderful thing that the Lord announced to them, far, far away? It could have been as far away as in Iran. Even to us in this jet age, it would have been a long journey from Iran, beyond the Mesopotamian valley, all the way to Jerusalem. The Lord made known to these pagan worshipers the birth of the Christ Child. And when they found the house, guided by a shining star, they saw in the house the young Child with Mary, His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh [Mathew 2:1-2, 9-11].
Having found the Child, they fell down and worshiped Him: an act of prostration, of adoration, of humble worship [Matthew 2:11]. That, to me, is something we are implementing in these days of Christmas celebration. For the first time, instead of having our Lottie Moon Week of Prayer for Foreign Missions, here at the church, we announced that the intercession would be shared by our people in homes all over the city of Dallas, and that is what we did this last week. I had the privilege to take a part in one of the services in one of the homes. I was so blessed; and my fellow ministers who shared in the other services in the homes told me that they were one of the finest meetings that they had ever seen or felt. So next year when we begin our Christmas season, we are going to begin it with a fortnight. We will have two weeks of intercession and praying, gathering in homes throughout the city. What a marvelous, wonderful way to be begin the Christmas season!
I asked them, “Where did you think of that?” And the leaders of the WMU in our church said, “When you came back and began our fall program, your first sermon was entitled And to the Church that is in Thy House. And you asked our people to assemble in prayer services, in worship hours in the homes, and that is what we have done this year.” Oh, I just was blessed by the thought of it, and blessed by sharing in one of them, and blessed by the wonderful reports from all the rest of them. That is what they did here: when they found “the young Child with Mary His mother they fell down, and worshiped Him” [Matthew 2:11]. Maybe that is why the wise men are called “wise.” They could see what so many in the world does not see, that in this Child is our hope for peace and salvation. Then it says after “they fell down, and worshiped Him . . . they presented unto Him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” [Matthew 2:11].
When we have our fortnight next year, of meeting in all of the homes of our people, and having services of love and adoration and praise and prayer, it does not at all take away from the parties we have at Christmas time. I love for our people to celebrate Christmas in social gatherings, in parties. They are not like the parties of the world where they get drunk and riotous and blasphemous; but the parties we have are interesting and they are attractive, they are beautiful. And there is no dark-brown hangover from them. But we gather in the name of our Lord, and have a wonderful time all through the church, all the organizations of the church, such as tomorrow night when we have our mission children here. And we will be there to sponsor a little child.
Well, when we have our prayer services, our fortnight of intercession and praise before Christmas Day and introducing the Christmas season, it will not take away from our beautiful parties, because the church is so large that you will have opportunity to go to a home and, at the same time, also at another hour, go to the party of your class or division or organization.
Well, anyway, this year we went last week—among other parties—we went to the one of our children’s division, our Nursery division. I was surprised at how many leaders we have in our nursery, leading, guiding, directing those little babies, those little children, just like the Lord was here. They had a beautiful program, and a part of it was a dramatic play, a dramatic story told with great feeling and meaning by one of our Sanctuary Choir members, Mrs. Jack Terrell, Beverly Terrell. And a little summation and a little capsulation of one of the stories: one of the things she told concerned a mother and a father and the family getting ready for the Christmas dinner and the Christmas tree and the exchange of gifts. But that morning, when they had their prayer, Mary, the mother in that home, prayed, “Lord Jesus, come and be the guest at our dinner and at the celebration of Your birthday.”
So as the day wore on and the Christmas tree and the presents and the dinner was prepared, she was upstairs getting ready for the gathering of all of the family and for the beautiful evening of Christmas. The doorbell rang, and she was somewhat upset, because she didn’t look for the family members to come that early, and after a moment, why, her husband stood at the foot of the stair and called her. And when she came to look, she saw her husband, so very pale and upset himself. And he said, “Mary, the Lord Jesus is at the door. It was He who rang the bell, and He has come to eat dinner with us and to share in the Christmas evening. And when He saw that I was startled, surprised, He said to me, ‘But Mary asked Me to come, and I have come.’”
You know, could I make an aside there? I just wonder how many of us would be surprised at our answered prayers, if with eyes of faith we could see the Lord a guest in our homes and at our table. I just wonder how many of us really mean the prayer when we pray it and ask the Lord to be the unseen guest at our breaking of bread, a silent partner to our every conversation. He was seated at the table with the rest of the family, and He stood by at the giving of the gifts. But the heart of that mother and wife, Mary, sank within her as she gave this gift, and they gave these gifts, and there was no gift for Jesus.
So the story ends: she kneels by His side, looking at His nail-pierced hands, when she bows before Him, and asks forgiveness that in the Christmas dinner they didn’t look for Him and in the sharing of gifts there was no gift for Him. And when she lifted up her face, He had vanished out of her sight. There is something in that story that is so poignant: our giving at Christmas time—do we also have a gift for Him? It is by nature, it’s the way we are framed, that our response to somebody we love is in a gift.
Back here in these early pages of the Bible, in my studying these Holy Scriptures, I became interested in the word translated “offering” and “sacrifice.” You know what the word is? It is minchāh; and minchāh is the ordinary Hebrew word for gift, translated “offering, sacrifice.” Cain brought before God a minchāh from the fruit of the ground [Genesis 4:3]—he was a tiller of the soil [Genesis 4:2]. And Abel, his brother, brought a minchāh, a gift of the firstlings of the flock [Genesis 4:4], because he was a shepherd [Genesis 4:2]. Apparently, from the beginning, the response of the human family was to bring before God, in love and appreciation and thanksgiving, an offering, a minchāh. And that is true of all of us. If there is somebody you love, you will just—without being taught—you will seek to bring them a gift, you just will. And the more you love them, the more lavishly will you make the gift, sometimes almost without reason.
Do you remember the story of the Lord Jesus, a guest in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus? Do you remember? Mary took an alabaster box full of ointment, and the Bible tells us how much it cost; it cost a year’s wages. She took the alabaster box of ointment and broke it over Jesus, and the savor filled the house. “And Judas Iscariot, seeing it, said, “What a waste. Why, it could have been sold and given to the poor. This he said, not because he had any concern for the poor,” John writes, “but because he had the bag”—he was the treasurer of the group—“and he took out of it for himself” [John 12:1-6].
And the Lord Jesus said, when Judas Iscariot encouraged the other disciples to find fault with the lavishness of the gift, Jesus said, “Verily, I say unto you, wherever this gospel is preached, this also will be told, what she hath done” [Matthew 26:13]. And I am helping to fulfill that prophecy today, this moment, as all through the centuries other ministers have done likewise. Was the Lord abusive, interdictory, condemnatory, in His attitude toward what Mary had done? No, not at all; He was pleased by it. That is one of the reasons that I think, when we do anything for Jesus, we ought to do it just the best we can. If there is a window, let us make it a beautiful window. If it is a house, let us make it a beautiful house. If it is a service, let us make it a fine service. If it is a song, let us make it a wonderful song. If it is a sermon, Lord, help me to do it good. It is for Thee, Lord, help me to do it well.
That, I think, is a way in which we honor God. And they brought a minchāh to the Lord, an offering, a gift, to the Lord: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh [Matthew 2:11]. But how do I bring a gift to the Lord? He is in heaven, and I am down here—of dust of the soil, of the ground, of a piece of the earth. How do I bring a gift to the Lord? Look, look. Didn’t the Lord identify Himself with His people? Didn’t He? In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, when those that God is saying,
Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom of the Father, come,
Because when I was poor and sick and naked and hungry and cold and needy and in prison, you visited Me.
And they say to Him, Why Lord, we never saw You poor and hungry and naked and sick and in prison.
And the Lord says, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye did it unto Me.
He identifies Himself with His people, and especially His poor and His sick, His distraught, His sorrowing, His unfortunate.
Look again, lest you think that that is unique or peculiar; look again. On the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus, “breathing out threatening and slaughter” against the people of the Lord, is stopped in the way by the Lord Himself, a vision of Christ above the brightness of the midday meridian, Syrian sun. And Saul, bowing before the glorious appearing of that wonderful Lord, says, “Lord, Lord, who art Thou?” And the Lord replies what? “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest” [Acts 9:1-5]. Why, Saul was not persecuting Jesus. He was on his way to Damascus to hale into prison and to death those who called upon His name. Not so! Not so! Paul was on his way to Damascus to persecute Jesus, for these belong to the body of Christ. They are His. He is identified with His people. So when I bring a gift to the Lord, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, I bring it for His people.
Who are those people? Why, I can tell you. Next Sunday night, when we have that beautiful Living Christmas Tree, and our choir, like angels, sing so gloriously, we are going back to an old day thirty years ago, when I came to be undershepherd of the church. And that first Christmas I asked our people to wrap up in white, clothing that you did not need and maybe staple groceries that you could share, and in the cold of the winter we would give them to the poor. Now we have seven chapels. Most of them are sub-marginal; most of them are in areas of great need. We purposely put them there. It is our responsibility, I think, being in Dallas, to try to minister to the needy and the poor in our city, and do it in the name of Christ, trying to lift them up, out of the gutter and out of drunkenness and out of debauchery and waste and sin, and trying to make them fine Christian families. We are succeeding in it; we have been blessed of God in it.
So next Sunday night when we come, we will wrap a package in white. There will be white paper in the Coleman Hall if you haven’t paper at home. And we will bring it, and we will just stack this great auditorium full of gifts for the poor, for Christ. We will do it every night following that Sunday. Every night that week you can bring white packages and lay them here. A gift for Jesus: our Lottie Moon Christmas offering, supporting the evangelization of the world. A gift for our Lord: a remembrance of our Buckner Home, and the Buckner Baptist Benevolences.
Our First Baptist Church school, Friday of this last week, one of the sweet members of our church sent me a gift for the school, one thousand eight hundred dollars; and she wrote in the note to me, “This is for tuition, to pay for some of the children who would want to come to the school and otherwise could not afford it.” And that will take care of three children who would love to come and otherwise could not. Our Bible Institute, yesterday, visiting at Baylor Hospital, I met a young nurse. She and her husband had come here from afar, from afar, that they might attend our Bible Institute. The Foundation we have in our church to support its ministries, ah, in how many ways, in how many ways do we have opportunity to bring a gift to Christ this Christmas season! And as we remember each other and give a gift to each other, we will not forget Him. This is His birthday. “And they opened their treasures and presented unto Him gifts; gold—money, frankincense, and myrrh” [Matthew 2:11]. Wonder what “frankincense” would be? Well, looking through the Bible, frankincense is the symbol and a type of our prayers ascending unto God [Psalm 144:2].
When Matthew begins his story, he begins it with Joseph [Matthew 1:18-25]. When Luke begins his story, he begins it with Mary, the mother [Luke 1:26-56]. And he goes all the way back to the forerunner, to the birth of John the Baptist, and it goes like this. “There is a priest of the course of Abijah named Zacharias, and as they cast lots, it was his lot to go into the Holy Place to burn frankincense unto the Lord” [Luke 1:5, 9]. Just one time in a lifetime did a priest ever have that opportunity; and even then, very few of them out of the thousands of priests, just a very few, could ever have that opportunity. And they chose the priest by lot. And that day the lot fell upon aged Zacharias. And he went into the Holy Place, and there before the veil on the golden altar of prayer and incense, he offered frankincense unto the Lord while the people prayed outside [Luke 1:9-10]. And it was then that the angel appeared to him, announcing the birth—even in his old age and in Elisabeth’s old age—announcing the birth of a boy, a son, they were to name John [Luke 1:11-13]. And when the lad was born, the tongue, the dumb, unspeaking tongue of Zacharias was loosed, and he prophesied [Luke 1:64]. And this is what he said:
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto His people by the remission of their sins…
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
[Luke 1:76-77, 79]
If I could then take the Holy Scriptures at that nativity season and guide us in our praying, offering unto God frankincense, our prayers, unto the Lord; we are to pray for peace, “to guide our feet into the way of peace” [Luke 1:79]. We live in an awesome, awesome day. Our people do not realize it. I don’t think they do.
The first time, which was years ago, that I went to Palestine we landed at night at the airport, and late at night into Jerusalem and to St. Andrew’s Hospice, a Scottish Presbyterian hotel, hospice for pilgrims. And the two of us, Dr. McCall and I, went to the St. Andrew’s Hospice, and were there entertained during our visit to Palestine. It was in the dead of the night, and I could see nothing. Early the next morning I awakened, and I looked out the window, looking toward the Jaffa Gate in the Jerusalem wall. And what I saw was a scene of utter devastation. It was soon after the 1948 War, and the United Nations had made a big demarcation between the Israeli forces and the Arab forces, the Jordanian forces. And between the two was a no man’s land. Right in front of me, coming out of the Jaffa Gate, was the Bethlehem road. It was filled with barbed wire and dragon’s teeth, those pyramided, concrete forms to impede the progression of tanks. And the houses and the buildings and the walls were scenes of war and desolation. “To pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee” [Psalm 122:6].
The possibility of nuclear confrontation between the great powers of the earth is always imminent, ever. In the long briefing that some of us had with Henry Kissinger in the White House, I asked him about the Vietnam War that was then going on, and he said, “There is no possibility of any great power confrontation in Vietnam. It will not be there.”
“Well,” I said, “Where do you think it would be or can be or might be?”
He said, “It will certainly be in the Middle East”; in the Middle East, in the Middle East.
You know, there is a reason for the recession that the entire world is being plunged into, and one of those reasons lies in the vast amount of economic resources of America and of Europe and of Japan that are being channeled into the hands of the Arab sheiks of the Middle East. I want to ask you a plain question. If that continues and that continues, and the money continues to flow out and to flow out and to flow out, the day would inevitably come when all the wealth of the world is held in their hands, all of it. Then I want to ask you the question, “When you see nations filled with poverty, great industries grinding to a halt, there is no power, there is no energy to run them, what do you think will happen?”
I will tell you exactly what will happen. There is no government that can exist, that can continue and see its people perish, starve, its industry come to a halt. I will tell you exactly what will happen. Unless there is something worked out, the day will come when the nations of the world—rather than see their people starve and their industries fall into disuse and desolation—they will say, “We will go take it.” It will be that simple, “We will take it.” And when that time comes, you have Armageddon [Revelation 16:13-16, 19:17-21]. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee” [Psalm 122:6].
Always in the frightful world in which we live, this frankincense ascending unto God [Psalm 144:2; Revelation 5:8]: O Lord, grant peace in the earth. Grant wisdom among men, as they seek to work through the economic troubles that afflict us and assail us on every side. Don’t you think that, just like that, the president of the United States, just like that, the Democratic majority in Congress can solve our economic problems? Economic problems don’t arise from the president of the United States or the Democratic Congress. Economic problems arise out of the fortunes and the providences of life. And there is no man in the earth—he doesn’t live, nor ever will live—that is able to control them. We can just ameliorate them somewhat. The Federal Reserve can ameliorate; Congress can ameliorate; the president can ameliorate. But these great moving cycles of life lie in the hands, it seems to me, of Almighty God!
There are imponderables in history that we cannot control, cannot foresee. Our lives ultimately lie in the hands of a Sovereign who guides and rules up there in glory. And that is why it behooves men to pray, “O Lord of the nations, O God of all life and living, grant unto us peace, and prosperity, and quiet, and happiness. Lord, Lord, to guide our feet into the way of peace” [Luke 1:79].
What do we offer unto God to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death? [Luke 1:79]. There is no answer to death in science, no answer in philosophy, no answer in human speculation. If there is any light in the darkness of the grave and in the world that is yet to come, it comes from His blessed face. Lord, in the hour of our death, we look up to Thee. Save us, save us!
“To give knowledge of salvation unto His people by the remission of their sins” [Luke 1:77]; however I make resolutions to do good, what of the sins of the days that are past? Lord, all of us are alike; lost, undone sinners. We need God’s remission and God’s salvation. We are to pray for it, a gift from His gracious hands to us. “And they brought unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” [Matthew 2:11]. Myrrh is a picture of devotion unto death, the gift of life, as our Lord laid down His life [Matthew 27:32-50; 1 Corinthians 15:3]. However else other things we bring to the blessed Jesus, this first and above all: our hearts, our love, our souls, our lives [2 Corinthians 8:5]. “Lord, here we are, a family. Bless us. Remember us, Lord.”
“Here we are, a couple. Bless us, Lord. Remember us.”
“Here I am, Lord, alone and by myself. Bless me, Lord. Remember me, Lord.” O the benedictory answer from heaven, when one offers himself thus to the blessed Lord Jesus! [Luke 15:10].
In a moment now we are going to stand and sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, just you, in the balcony round, on the lower floor, into the aisle, and down here to the front, “Here I come, pastor. I have made the decision now in my heart. And the very moment that you give me opportunity, I am coming. Here I am.” Do it, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.