CHRISTMAS SALE: Starting Earlier Every Year

December 6, 1998

Is anyone else old enough to remember when the day after Thanksgiving Day marked the start of the Christmas shopping season? That tradition has long since gone by the board! Halloween had not come this year before I was seeing Christmas trees, wreaths, and other decorations in stores. And the markdown sales that used to come the day after Christmas are already under way. This sweater was too good a buy to pass up ó for somebody who doesnít like to wear coats and ties anymore.

Christmas sales are starting earlier every year. And the thought of "early" Christmas shopping causes me to think how much better it is for someone to build a life on Christ from his or her earliest days than to flee to Jesus in later-life desperation ó with so much regret about time lost, spiritual opportunities wasted, and the like.

Yes, Jesus saved the thief on the cross (Luke 23:42-43). When you see him in heaven, though, he will tell you that he wishes he had lived and died as something other than a thief. What a wasted life! What a pathetic death! And the odds are heavily against salvation for those who do not accept Christ in their teen years. Statistics I have seen in several places say that about 85 percent of all people who become Christians do so before age 18 and approximately 95 percent do so before age 25. The thief on the cross is the exception for salvation, not the rule.

A Teen-Aged Girl

The biblical account of the birth of Jesus begins with a teen-aged girl named Mary. Although the Bible doesnít have the concern with precise dates and ages we moderns do, we can be pretty sure she was no older than about 14 when an angel of the Lord appeared to her.

The norm in first-century Jewish culture would have said that a girl is eligible for marriage at 13. To reach age 15 or 16 without her family having arranged a suitable marriage for her would have been humiliating. All the evidence is that Maryís family-arranged marriage was normal in all respects ó until that eventful day when everything was changed by a word that came to her from God.

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virginís name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."

"I am the Lordís servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her (Luke 1:26-38).

What would have been going through the mind of so young a girl when that angel disappeared? What goes through the mind of any young person when his or her faith is challenged? To help me answer that question, I have asked the young lady who aided with the dramatization of the reading from the Gospel of Luke to let you know about a challenge she has already had to face.

This is Rachel Craig, and she is 12 years old. Her parents are Richard and Suzanne. God has been her deliverer, healer, and friend during an ordeal that started over five years ago. Rachel got sick on July 4, 1993, while she and her family were visiting at the home of Suzanneís parents in Ohio. A rushed trip back home to Atlanta and tests at the Scottish Rite Childrenís Medical Center led to the discovery of a cancerous tumor in her left kidney. That kidney was removed and chemotherapy was begun.

We are five years out from that terrible summer of 1993 now, and you can see that Rachelís beautiful hair is back. You can see a healthy twinkle in her eyes. And, Rachel, will you tell the church what the doctors told you last week? [She has been told to skip a year in what has been her annual checkup cycle. There is no trace of cancer in her body, thank God!]

Rachel, I know you and your parents believe you are well and healthy because of Godís goodness to you. I also know that a very special friend of yours did not survive cancer. Would you tell us her story? [Jennifer was a teen-ager at the same church in Atlanta who had cancer and who helped Rachel deal with her chemotherapy treatments. Jennifer showed Jesus to Rachel and made things much easier for her by doing things ranging from allowing Rachel to sit in her lap during chemotherapy drips to getting in bed with her to watch Braves games!]

The Value of Early Choices

The histories of Mary, Rachel, and Jennifer are variations on the same story. All of them have to do with a very young person being challenged to trust God. All of them are "strange stories" by virtue of that fact alone. All of them show that some people make choices at a very young age that are mature beyond their years and give great honor to their God.

Did you hear about the man who went in for his annual checkup and received a phone call from his physician a couple of days later? The doctor began by saying, "Iím afraid I have some bad news for you."

"Whatís the news?" the man asked.

"Well, you have only 24 hours to live."

"That is bad news," said the shocked patient.

"But I have even worse news!" the doctor continued.

"What could be worse than what youíve already told me?" he stammered.

"Well, Iíve been trying to call you since yesterday."

Weíre all on short notice, but most of us seem not to know it. I think those of us who were critically ill in our youth got a clearer perspective on life than some of you who hardly had a sick day in your youth. When you are as sick as Rachel has been, it is hard to ignore the value of life or the certainty of death. When the most memorable events of your life until around age 10 are recalled from the vantage point of a sick bed ó as mine are ó you count every day a gift.

When our older son was nearly 17 years old, he was in an automobile accident that could have been much worse than it was. I went to him at the scene of the accident and got him in my truck to go home. We rode along for several minutes in near silence. Then Tim looked over and said, "Dad, I realized for the first time today that Iím not invincible." My thought at that moment was that this might well turn out to be the most significant day in my sonís life!

Here is a biblical text that has been important to me since I was a child:

Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment.
So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
"I find no pleasure in them . . ." (Eccl. 11:9 ó 12:1).


This church has a large number of young people who are very important to us. And the challenge we bring to each one of you is in the form of a summons for you to "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth." Indeed, "days of trouble" will come in the course of your lifetime, and very few things of value will come to you without sacrifice and pain. And your ability to cope with those crises with Christís presence in your life will be multiplied times greater than trying to muddle through them without him. And then comes eternity. Some unknown writer put the matter this way:

The Spirit came in childhood
And pleaded, "Let me in,"
But oh! the door was bolted
By thoughtlessness and sin;
"I am too young," the child replied,
"I will not yield today;
There's time enough tomorrow."
The Spirit went away.

Again He came and pleaded
In youth's bright happy hour;
He came but heard no answer,
For lured by Satan's power
The youth lay dreaming then
And saying, "Not today,
Not till I've tried earth's pleasures."
The Spirit went away.

Again He called in mercy
In manhood's vigorous prime,
But still He found no welcome,
The merchant had no time;
And so, repulsed and saddened,
The Spirit went away.

Once more He called and waited,
The man was old and ill,
And scarcely heard the whisper,
His heart was cold and still;
"Go leave me; when I need you,
I'll call for you," he cried;
Then, sinking on his pillow,
Without a hope, he died!

If you donít come to the storehouse of Godís spiritual treasure to "shop early," you may let everything that could have been of real value to you get away. Virtue, integrity, character, the Holy Spirit, grace ó these are better sought early than late. They will undergird everything you are and all you do. They will make life more secure, more holy, more joyous.

Where can you find a better bargain than God offers in his willingness to exchange the righteousness of his Son for the sin that can only cause you pain? What better thing could begin this Christmas season than for you than to receive the gift God has already purchased for you by the blood of his Son?

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