The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2000-2001

The Best Christmas Gift
Philippians 4:4-10

We are a nation obsessed with the best. Consider the names of businesses that have used this idea to attract our consumer interest-Best Buy, BestFares, Best Western, BestPower, BestFreinds, BestSoftware, and others. But even before we go to any of these "best" stores or websites, we first have to check out the list of Best Books, Best Cars, Best Christmas Gifts, Best Colleges, or Best Hospitals.

We want nothing but the best for our children, community, our sports teams, and ourselves. Unless you are Michael Ilitch, William Clay Ford, or Matt Millen, then you will settle for mediocre teams that simply make money, but they are the exceptions. 

There is nothing wrong with this human desire especially when it comes to decision-making. Each day we are faced with a score of options. Your husband wants to buy land in northern Michigan but you thought the money should stay in the savings account to help pay for your children's college tuition. Your company is struggling financially and you wonder if you should look for a new job. Or, you never seem to have enough money and are considering taking a second job. A computer class at the community college would provide some very valuable training but it would prevent you from helping your children with their homework. The church needs volunteers to help with WACKy Club but you are not sure how effective you are in ministering to children. The countless possibilities can be mind numbing as you sort through the various choices. Some decisions are easy. You know what is the best choice and are not tempted to alter your selection. But other situations are more difficult. They require that you decide between the lesser of two evils. Or you are barraged with a cacophony of opinions from friends. How do you know that is right? How do you know what is best for your family, your church, or yourself?

The season of Advent is a time of decision-making and choices. Mary chose to accept the angel's message. Joseph decided not to expose her to public scorn. Their acts of faithfulness and kindness required them to endure months of uncertainty and a difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Even after the birth of the promised Child, they still had to wait. The shepherds could have chosen to stay in the fields but they sought confirmation to their heavenly vision and then chose to make known to everyone who would listen what they had heard and seen concerning the child. And the wise men had a choice to honor Herod's request or save the life of the newborn king. Their decision prompted Herod to choose genocide on the babies of Bethlehem. All of them sought to do what was best but how could they know with any degree of certainty. 

The life of faith is a life of choices. The apostle Paul understood the uncertainty that Christians face in our decision-making so he mentions to the church in Philippi that he is praying for them about the matter. 

Each church had a special place in Paul's heart for each one had a different beginning. The church in Philippi began when Paul visited the city and searched for a group of faithful Jews and god-fearers on the Sabbath. He discovered a group of women praying alongside a river. They were led by a woman named Lydia who marketed purple dyed products and was fairly wealthy. She and her household were the first to accept the gospel. Sometime after this, Paul and Silas encounter a woman possessed by a strange spirit. She follows the apostles crying out that they are servants of the most high God. Paul finally becomes annoyed with her and commands the spirit to leave her. Rather than receiving a thank you, the men who were profiteering off the women seize Paul and Silas and accuse them of advocating illegal practices in a Roman colony. The two apostles are stripped, beaten, and thrown into prison. That night an earth quakes shakes the prison opening all the doors. The jailer, fearful that he will be humiliated and punished for the prisoners escaping, draws his sword to commit suicide. Paul not only saves him from a physical death but baptizes him and his entire household into the faith.

The next day the magistrate orders the prisoners set free but Paul declines until he receives an apology. As a Roman citizen, he was exempt from such beating without a fair and proper trial. The civil officials embarrassed by the miscarriage of justice apologize but ask that he leave the city to avoid further problems. Paul complies but leaves Luke and others to continue his work. Later we learn that the church frequently sends money to support Paul and the apostle probably visited the city on another occasion.1

The formation of the church in Philippi has many striking similarities with the stories of other new church development projects undertaken by the apostle. Paul is constantly faced with choices. While he receives a clear message from God on three occasions, most often he has to make decisions without a clear and distinct word. He has to learn to walk on faith never absolutely certain if his decision is the best one for the situation. Over the years, Paul learns to live with a degree of ambiguity. He learns how to make difficult decisions when the landscape is shrouded in a fog. He discovers how to listen to that inner voice of God amongst a megaphone of dissonant voices. Paul tells the church the surest way to discern what is best for their lives is for him to pray that their love increases.

His prayer reveals a profound insight into human nature. In his book The Voice of Jesus, Gordon Smith writes, "Nothing is so fundamental to the Christian journey as knowing and feeling that we are loved. Nothing."2 Without the unqualified assurance that we are loved, Smith states, we are handicapped in our capacity to discern what is best for us. 

When we doubt that we are loved, we may hesitate in our decision-making. The lack of love undermines our inner confidence prompting us to look to others for reassurance and affirmation. But that creates a problem. Two friends may offer two different opinions. To say yes to one, is to say no to the other and risk rejection. We also may be tempted to rely upon the external circumstances for reassurance. This may work during the uneventful situations of life but what happens when clouds limit our visibility.

Borrowing from an ancient nautical example, Smith reminds us of the days when sailors did not have radar, detailed charts, GSP, or even a compass. They relied on the position of the sun to guide them by day and the stars at night. They would use their knowledge of astronomy to chart their path during clear weather but when clouds covered the sky, they had to rely on their "dead reckoning." Sometimes they would have to trust their knowledge of the sea and their ability to determine course and speed to transport them across vast stretches of unmarked ocean.3 Unless we know and feel that we are loved, we will not have that ability to rely on our "dead reckoning" to discern what is best for our lives.

When we do not feel love, we also may over compensate by forcing our agenda and preferences onto the situation. The ego inflates to create a barrier of protection. We convince ourselves that our choices are wise and motives are pure. We bristle when anyone challenges our opinions or what we think God is saying. We stubbornly refuse to enter into conversation with others to test our assumptions and inclinations.

In the euphoria of our holiday celebrations we may readily affirm the message that God loves us but I wonder how many of us truly experience the unconditional, unqualified, undeserved love of God? I ask this because our culture is permeated with an attitude of conditional love. Consider the innocent song that you will hear as you walk through the stores buying your Christmas gifts, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." 

You better watch out, you better not cry
Better not pout, I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is Coming to Town

He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're a wake
He knows when you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

The song states that we will not enjoy the benefits of Christmas unless we are good. The words may appear innocent but the message is a clear contradiction to the gospel. And more importantly it reveals an attitude that has permeated our cultural-love is conditional. We are reminded of this in our homes, where children learn that if they want the love and blessing of their parents they must be good. It is reinforced in schools where children that behave are awarded with special privileges and honors. And at work we are told that our value to the company is based only upon what we produce. Under such an onslaught of negativity, we should not be surprised to wonder why the words, God loves me, can be so easily spoken but so foreign to our hearts.

The challenge for us is how we increase not our knowledge of God but our experience in God's love.

I believe that the only way to do that is to give to each other the best Christmas gift we could possible give-our unqualified love. It is so simple yet so profound and so difficult because it is so different from how we interact with one another. 

Each of us has a small circle of friends. Usually, we share similar perspectives on politics, lifestyle, and our outlook on life. We are friends because of our commonality. These relationships are not very demanding. We receive as much as we give. There is nothing wrong with this unless we limit our time and energy to this small circle of friends. Then we are guilty of conditional love.

The most visible sign of someone who enjoys the unconditional love of God is a life lived for others. The love of God frees us from a self-absorbed orientation and directs our thoughts to the needs of others. It silences the drive to speak and creates a longing to listen. It compels us to befriend others who may have different quirks in their behavior or manners that we consider rude or offensive; who may take a different approach to life or hold contrary political positions. These people present a greater challenge to love unconditional by offering them our friendship, our time, our availability, and even our vulnerability. 

Are you looking at some difficult decisions? Are you uncertain about which course of action to take? If Paul could offer you any advice, he would tell you that the only way to discern what is best is for you to increase your love. You may also find that this is the best Christmas gift that you could give to yourself and to someone else.

1 Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001, c1979-1988).
2 Gordon T. Smith, The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 74.
3 Op. Cit., 144.

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Crossroads Presbyterian Church
1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390