If you’re my age, you probably know what Precious Moments figurines are—pudgy, little, pastel-colored people dripping with sap and crafted out of ceramic to make a certain class of person exclaim, “Isn’t that so cute?!” Perhaps the most precious of the Precious Moments is the one depicting the nativity scene. It takes precious—or puke--to a whole new level!
But whether you like Precious Moments or not, it seems to me that their creators are not alone in making Christmas precious. Hey, Christmas, has a lot going for it in the precious department. There’s a young mom who gives birth on the road. There’s a loyal husband (well almost) who is scrambling to find a place to see it happen. There are cows mooing and sheep baaing, or so we are told. There are even angels who show up, in fact a whole sky full, and their message is about peace on earth. Then add to that a touch of royalty. The Magi probably didn’t have any royal blood, but, come on, taking a little license with the story to make it a bit more precious is okay, isn’t it?
You might have guessed it, I am not much for this rendition of Christmas. I am sure for Mary and Joseph there were a precious moment or two, but don’t all parents have similar moments when they have their first child? In fact, if you ask me, I don’t think Christmas was about precious at all. It was a line-in-the-sand kind of moment if I’ve ever seen one.
Weeks after Jesus was born, when Mary and Joseph were still near Jerusalem, they headed up to the temple to clear themselves to head back home. While there, an old man named Simeon (who apparently had God on his mind a lot) got a peek of the baby Jesus. His reaction was rather startling. He grabbed the child into his arms said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that is spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed.” Now wait a second, that’s not the kind of thing you’re supposed to say to new parents! What’s precious about that?! Nothing, and that’s just the point.
Today, actually for a long time now, it’s been fashionable to make Jesus precious—to make him the nice guy who smiles at everyone, gives a bit of good advice now and then, and is glad to help you out of a jam. But that’s hardly the sum total of Jesus in the Bible. If it was, I don’t think we’d be talking about his crucifixion. No, Jesus, didn’t come to be precious, he came to draw a line in the sand. Just take a look at how he called a spade a spade whether you were friend or foe. It’s as if he didn’t care whether you liked him or not.
There is one part of the Christmas story I don’t remember ever being taught in church. It comes right after the Magi make their gift-bearing visit. King Herod didn’t like the scuttlebutt about the precious little Jesus, so he sent his death squad to kill every baby boy in Bethlehem hoping Jesus would be among the mix. I’d like to see Precious Moments try and depict that! Ask the mothers of those little boys what they thought of Jesus’ birth and I doubt ‘precious’ is the adjective they’d use.
Later when Jesus had grown into a man and had hit the teaching circuit he said in his usual blunt style, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and I wish it was already kindled!...Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” If you think of Christmas as precious, you might find this all rather disturbing. Not so, if you think of Christmas less like a Hallmark movie and more like a search and rescue mission. Imagine the latter for a second. Think of a special ops unit parachuting into enemy-occupied territory. What are the people on the ground thinking? If you’re looking to be rescued, you can’t contain your excitement. But if you’re set on power and control, you’ll do your best to take the special ops down. Either way, what you are not saying is, “Oh, look at that, a nice man is parachuting down to us. How precious!”
Now, of course, all this about Jesus puts us in a rather awkward position. It means we’ve got to decide where we stand with respect to Jesus. Are we going to gag him, shoot him, and pretend he never landed in the first place or are we going to follow his lead out of enemy territory? That’s the line in the sand. That’s the line in the sand Simeon recognized at Jesus' birth. That’s the line in the sand Jesus said he came to draw. That’s why the gospels are replete with blunt assessments like this: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” You can call that precious if you want, but I am thinking there’s a better word for Christmas. You decide.
Okay, so I am not really going to tell you how to spend your year-end bonus, but I do want to get you thinking about how you should spend your money in general and that would include any extra income that comes in at year’s end. If you’re a Christian, you may have learned that all your financial resources are a gift from God and that you are to act as a steward of those resources. That sounds spiritual enough, but just what does it mean? It means we ought to spend our money as God would want.
When I look at Scripture, I see God wanting us to spend our money in three ways:
That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? Use your money to care for your family, help the poor, and build the kingdom. None of this is meant to undermine the wisdom associated with saving for a later need or being careful that our giving doesn’t create an undue dependency; it simply gives a basic framework of how we are to act as stewards of the money that God has entrusted to us.
Through the years, my wife and I have given to many. More often than not we give on a regular basis as this helps those we support with cash flow and also keeps us reminded of those to whom we give. We also, however, tend to give extra at year’s end. You probably do too. Maybe thinking through the grid above will make that year-end process a little less confusing and little more purposeful, and even help you know what to do with that year-end bonus.
Sometimes Jesus’ parables are hard to understand, but the one he tells of a persistent widow at the beginning of Luke 18 should not be. And it should not be difficult to understand because Luke tells us why Jesus told the parable. Luke wrote: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” So there you have it. If you read Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow and come up with a different “moral to the story,” I'm pretty confident you’re not reading it right.
I bring up Luke’s summary of Jesus’ parable because of an interaction I had with a man today. I first met him probably four years ago. We have gone to numerous lunches, but in terms of conversations about God or Jesus or the Bible I have never gotten much traction. This week as I was trying to fill in a couple of last-minute cancellations, I wondered whether it was worth it to reach out to him again, or whether I should turn my focus elsewhere. Lunch answered that question.
After taking our seats in a small, lunch-time dive, it took less than five minutes for my friend to bring up a question about the purpose of life. In no time, we were talking about God and how we can know he exists. Then our conversation took us to Jesus and his sacrifice for us and the difference he can make in our lives. Finally, we concluded by talking about the Bible and agreed to read Luke’s gospel and get together to discuss what we are reading.
And to think I was just about to give up on this man.
Sometimes people ask me when it is time move on from an effort to reach out to someone. I usually say that even if there is a time that we should move on, it is probably way further down the road than we think. Today, I needed to listen to my own advice. Certainly, there are times when God sets the table and I am able to go from 0 to 60 with someone in a first meeting or two, but sometimes it takes years of cultivating a relationship before there is a readiness to talk meaningfully about God things. The question is will I persist.
If you are reading this as a Christian, my guess is there is someone in your life that you hope will see Jesus for who he is. You’ve tried to further conversation personally or invited him or her to this or that gathering to explore Christ. And nothing seems to have come of it. It’s just at these times that you can walk away. But maybe, like me, that's just the time you need to make one more call and set up one more lunch.
Some people ask me what I do with Search. Sometimes it's just about praying and not giving up.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.