We’ve all had moments from our past we’d like to forget. Lots of pictures we’d like to burn. Not just embarrassing stuff, but painful stuff. Hurtful things people have said or done. Ways we’ve hurt others. Words we’d like to take back. Our pasts are filled with things that can work against us in the present. The Bible calls them sin. Sin just means to miss the mark. To fall short. And if we’re all honest, we’ve all had moments when we have fallen short, and the past has this power to take your mistakes and failures and beat you over the head with them. The past can rob us of joy in the present and rob us of hope in the future. That’s why I love what the Bible says about what Jesus did for us on the Cross. 1 Corinthians 15:55-57 (NLT): “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus has solved the problem of our sin—our past. Through faith in Jesus, we have the victory. Death is not the end, doubts are not the end, and difficulties are not the end. Through faith in Jesus we receive forgiveness from our past and a new life in Him. Thankful for that truth.
God has done so much for us. He wants to give us a new name and a new identity that says we’re a winner in Jesus Christ. We share in His victory. We share in His accomplishments. We’re forgiven because of what He did. We can begin to walk in faith, following him–each day of our life. We’re qualified because God qualifies those He calls. We just need to recover our real name: a forgiven child of God. We need to go with the strength we have and remember who is with us—the God who draws straight lines with crooked sticks. We just need to have faith.
If you struggle with your past, I want to challenge you with this: Be more concerned with what God has done in the past than what you have done in the past. If you are going to look to the past, you might as well look past your own past and into the life that Jesus lived on earth. Here is God in the flesh, and what do you see Him doing? He heals the sick. He gives sight to the blind. He has compassion for people at the end of their rope. He hangs out with prostitutes and tax collectors and other notorious sinners. He becomes good friends with them. Enlists them in a new future. When Jesus was nailed to the cross by your sins and my sins, you know what He said? “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” Jesus died to save you from your past, not to condemn you for your past. He died to forgive you and make your past history. He died to give you a new story. He died to give you a new hope and full life. Never forget that. Your past does not determine your potential. God’s grace determines your potential. Put your faith in Him.
Give in to God, but don’t give up. Don’t give up because it’s tough. Don’t give up when your family or friends hurt you. Don’t give up when you’re loved ones don’t back you. Don’t give up when your life flips upside down. Don’t give up when your plan goes from clear to crazy. Don’t give up when people kick you while you’re down. Don’t give up when you can’t see a way out. Don’t give up when you can’t see a way up. Don’t give up when you can’t see hope. Don’t give up when you can’t see the dream anymore. Don’t give up when you can’t see God anymore. Don’t give up when you don’t feel strong enough. Don’t give up when you don’t feel talented enough. Don’t give up when you don’t feel qualified. Don’t give up when you don’t feel like you have what it takes. Don’t give up when you don’t think you can. Don’t give up when circumstances are insurmountable. Don’t give up when difficulties seem overwhelming. Don’t give up when you are denied opportunities because of your background, or your mistakes, or your gender, or your race or your faith. Don’t give up when you see others quit. Don’t give up when you see others blame. Don’t give up when you see others reach their dreams. Don’t give up when you see others move ahead of you. Don’t give up when others get promoted over you. Don’t give up when others seem so much happier than you (on social media, don’t worry – they’re not!) Don’t give up when it hurts. Don’t give up when you’re tired. Don’t give up when it’s hard. Don’t give up when you fail. Don’t give up when it’s impossible, when it’s inevitable, when it’s unlikely, when it’s unpopular. Don’t give up because at just the right time you will receive a harvest of blessing. Don’t give up! Don’t give up, but do surrender to God.
How do we break through the labels and live up to God’s potential? By recovering our real name and utilizing the strengths we have. We may not feel like a hero, but the Bible says, “Mighty hero! The Lord is with you!” (Judges 6:12). We may not feel like His forgiven and beloved child, but that is what He has named us. We may not feel like someone who’s empowered by the Holy Spirit, but with faith we can embrace that identity. What others call you is not reality. The name God calls you IS reality. It supersedes all other names, even the ones you call yourself. Recover your new name and who God made you to be. Embrace your new identity through faith.
Expectations usually don’t match reality. And one expectation people have is that the more God loves us the fewer problems we’ll face. Because if God is for us, who can be against us? He’s all powerful. He’s all loving. We’re friends. We’re all good. We’re tempted to see God’s love through the lens of our life situation. When life is good, God is good. But when life is bad, God is mad, or distant. Instead, see your situation through faith. Choose to see your situation from the angle of God’s love, rather than see God’s love from the angle of your situation.
God has spoken clearly about who you are as a person. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world.” If you are a part of the world, God loves you. Verse 17 goes on to say, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.“ God desires everyone to be saved. The baseline for you as a person is that you’re loved and deemed worthy of saving. Has anyone ever told you that? Next the Bible says that by the simple act of believing Jesus is the sinless Son of God who gave His life for yours, you become a child of God. That means you have God’s special attention and blessing. It means you’re part of this new, amazing thing He is doing called the Kingdom of Heaven. It means you’re gifted with God-given abilities to make a difference in the lives of others. It means you have an eternal inheritance awaiting you as a part of God’s family forever. It means God’s own spirit is living inside of you, helping you grow and recover your new identity.
How do we hope again? Reject your rejections. Remember that God knows you and He chose you for blessing, protection, growth and joy. See God’s hand in your hardships. When suffering increases in your life don’t buy the myths that God doesn’t care and that the suffering will never end. Everything has a season, and God uses those seasons to purify your faith to trust in Him. Lastly, go to the ultimate source. God offers the solid hope that you can build every other hope upon. We are right to expect great things from a great God who has great plans and always—and by always I mean always—keeps His promises. As Peter said, “So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead.”
Every time you find yourself complaining, switch to the gratitude line. Use that moment to thank God for something. If your knee hurts, give thanks that you can walk. Being able to walk is a gift. If your car needs a repair, and you find yourself getting angry, give thanks to God that you have a car to take you places. Having a car is a gift. When your kids will not give you any personal space, give thanks that are not yet teenagers who never come out of their rooms. And when they are teens in their room, give thanks that they are home, and not off living their own life yet. And when they are living their own life, give thanks you all made it through their teen years without killing anyone. When you wake up and need to go to work for another week, give thanks that God provides. If you’re struggling to find work, thank God for the time and the rest as you pray for work. Work and rest are both gifts. It’s really tempting to get in that complaints line even going to church. But instead thank God there is a place to come and focus on the reason for the season.
One of my favorite pieces is from a sermon by Pastor S.M. Lockridge. It’s called “That’s My King.” Lockridge says, “My King was born King. He’s the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s enduringly strong and entirely sincere. He’s eternally steadfast. He's immortally graceful. He's imperially powerful. He's impartially merciful. He's God's Son. He's the sinner's savior. He's the centerpiece of civilization. He's honest. He's unique. He's unparalleled. He's unprecedented. He's supreme. He's pre-eminent. He's the grandest idea in literature. He's the highest personality in philosophy. He's the miracle of the age. He's the superlative of everything good that you choose to call Him. He supplies strength for the weak. He's available for the tempted and the tried. He sympathizes and He saves. He's the Almighty God who guides and keeps all his people. He heals the sick. He cleanses the lepers. He forgives sinners. He discharged debtors. He delivers the captives. He defends the feeble. He blesses the young. He serves the unfortunate. He regards the aged. He rewards the diligent and He beautifies the meek. That’s my King.” Lockridge says, “Do you know him? He’s the master of the mighty. He’s the captain of the conquerors. He’s the head of the heroes of the overcomers. He's the leader of the legislatures. He's the governor of governors. He's the prince of princes. He's the King of kings and He's the Lord of lords. That's my King. His office is manifold. His promise is sure. His light is matchless. His goodness is limitless. His mercy is everlasting. His love never changes. His Word is enough. His grace is sufficient. His reign is righteous. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He’s always been and always will be. I'm talking about the fact that He had no predecessor and He'll have no successor. There's nobody before Him and there'll be nobody after Him. That's my King!”
The Christmas story is about the fact that even in the midst of the hassle and the difficulty, God has come near to you so that you can come near to Him. You can come near to Him in the middle of a health situation. In the middle of a tough work situation. In the middle of a hard family situation. You can come near to Him no matter what you are facing or what you are going through in your life. We have to experience it more than just a surface acknowledgement that Jesus was born. We have to come to a place where through faith, we begin to allow that to change our perspective. Jesus himself said this: “I am the light of the world. If you follow me you won’t have to walk in darkness because you will have the light that leads to life.” When you are in the darkness of loneliness, depression, addiction or pain – He is the light that can not only lead you out, but can also lead you to life.
This holiday season, spend and give in honor of the One who spent all He had to give you all you need. Invest that extra time and effort in honor of celebrating Jesus. Resist all the temptations to just meet expectations, rather than share the joy of the holiday. Share God’s love with an ever-growing family, making room for their faults and room for the forgotten, because Jesus came to this messy, crowded world to save us from our sins and love us all the way to heaven.
Christmas means you are inherently loved and valued because God says you were worth fighting and dying for. Christmas means you are not alone in your challenges; that God shows up to comfort you in suffering and works His good in all things. Christmas means you are never trapped and condemned by your shortcomings or all the bad things you've done. You don't have to pay for your mistakes at God's feet. Jesus already has. Grace, hope, forgiveness and true love: it was all born Christmas day. That is good news. Receive it—really receive it—and Christmas will start to come to life in you despite the mess. It’s not about a having the perfect Christmas; it’s about celebrating the perfect Savior.
Maybe all you want for Christmas this year is some family peace. To dial down the drama and get along. To feel some love and some togetherness. A sense of belonging. Maybe you just want some peace and quiet this Christmas. To stop hustling for one day. To be able to rest and not feel so tired—not feel so overwhelmed. Maybe you just want to be happy. To get back a little of that wonder you felt as a kid. Maybe you just want to wake up Christmas morning and feel like everything is going to be okay. To not be afraid. To know that better days are ahead. That the best is yet to come. The good news is that these are exactly the kind of gifts God wants to give us at Christmas. Jesus was born to give you more than just a holiday; He was born to bring you a new day in your life. He was born to bring you all the things you really long for. Hope. Joy. Peace. Forgiveness. Eternal life. Good news. The greatest gift of Christmas is one you don't have to open, shop for, or buy. The real miracle of Christmas isn't under the tree. The greatest Christmas present is God’s presence and you don’t have to wait to open it, because God is everything we all want. He comes with peace, with help, with direction for your life and with joy. Those are all gifts I hope we all open this year.
There is a simple joy in partnership with God. I believe walking with God in faith this holiday we can have a child-like joy, even in tough circumstances. Not child-ish, but childlike. You know, as I talk to people, I hear this a lot. I hear them say, “Christmas is for kids.” It is. It is for kids. It’s wonderful for kids. What I think sometimes is implied in that is that it’s not for adults either. But the greatest gift at Christmas is Jesus and He can be experienced in our hearts and lives, no matter what age we are, and I believe it can lead to simple joy in tough seasons.
If you have to choose between grace and haste, choose grace. This holiday season, spend the extra time listening to person who calls, even when they start complaining. Let other people cut in line or steal your parking space. Be thankful for the cards you receive, enjoy them, before you feel the pressure to respond because you haven’t gotten theirs out yet. Accept gifts graciously, thankfully, even if your gift-equality is out of whack. Watch those cheesy old movies with your family (snuggle even though your kids are wiggly or huge). Listen to the music, even though you have heard it all before. Go through all the traditions—slowly. Take time to notice the lights, smell the smells and most of all take in the story of Jesus all around you during this time of year. You might have a thousand things to do, but don’t skip out on church and don’t blow past Jesus. He’s the reason for it all. Have a personal encounter with Him. Feel that joy and awe again. That’s what we all really want, isn’t it? You don’t get that by going faster. Grace is incompatible with haste.
There are a lot of things we can celebrate at Christmas. We can celebrate being together as a family. We can celebrate finding a perfect gift or getting something awesome. We can celebrate the movies we love to watch and the traditions we love. But if you want to want to move from obligation to celebration, you need to celebrate Jesus within all those other things. You give those gifts because Jesus has given you the gift of grace. Hang those lights because Jesus has lit up the darkness. Enjoy your relationships because Jesus has made possible a relationship with God. Enjoy all the traditions because they are a way for you to celebrate the fact that wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace has come to be your leader and forgiver. Forget about having a perfect Christmas. Forget about living up to some standard. Pour grace on your Christmas, instead.
How many of you would like to have some heavy burdens lifted from your shoulders this year? This is what Christmas is about! It’s a celebration of the fact that Jesus has broken the burdens that others try to place on our backs. It means that when someone else makes you feel like Christmas won’t be Christmas unless you buy this or do that cook all day…that is not a burden you need to bear. If someone in your world, or societal standards, or that inner nagging voice is giving you a list of 10 or 20 or 100 things you feel like you should be doing, here is a word for you: Don’t bear a burden that Jesus has already broken. Guilt is a burden Jesus came to break so you don’t have to bear it. Don’t let the obligations of the season ruin the celebration of the season.
Jesus is the light. He can shine bright even in your darkest situation. He can bring light to the darkness of your divorce. Light to the darkness of your parenting situation. Light to the darkness of that legal battle you are facing. Light to that problem at work or with your health that seems to have no answer or no clarity. When the darkness closes in, you need to look for the light, because in the battle between Jesus’s light and your darkness, the light always wins. Darkness cannot snuff out light. But even a little light can push back the darkness, and Jesus is not a little light. He’s a great light. It doesn’t matter how dark the darkness gets around you, if you get around the great light, that darkness has no choice but to flee. So no matter what you are facing, I urge you, seek out the light. Turn toward Jesus in prayer.
We all have a lot of things to get done. A lot of things we want to have happen this year. But don’t allow what is most urgent to get in the way of what is most important. Don’t water down the joy and grace you can receive this year by trying to keep up with last year or meet other people’s expectations. Let’s all do less and live more. Give presents, but also be present. That’s how you receive the gift of encountering Jesus this Christmas season. Slow down and soon you’ll find you have more time for what matters, and that means you will start to matter more.