CHRISTMAS SALE: Last-Minute Shopping

December 20, 1998

May I read you a Christmas story? Listen carefully for its fine points as I read . . .

When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals ó one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One."

The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself."

There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Arenít you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"

But the other criminal rebuked him. "Donít you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."

Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:33-43).

PRAYER: In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray to the One Triune God who creates, sustains, and saves. We plead for you to use this Holy Christmas Season to open hearts to the Christ who has come in gentleness, love and authentic compassion to us sinners in our human weakness. Bless this time of worship, and use the words spoken here to that end. Hear us in our prayers. Accept us by your grace. Receive us to your glory. Amen.

No one knows for sure when Jesus was born. In the third century, Clement of Alexandria suggested April 19 as the day of his birth. Other dates being argued for at the same time were March 28 and May 29. Christians in Egypt came to celebrate January 6 as his birth date, as the Eastern Orthodox Church still does. It was in the mid-fourth century that December 25 began to gain general acceptance as the date for Christmas in the West. The plain fact is that neither Scripture nor secular history provides sufficient data to fix the time of the birth of Jesus with any precision.

So we celebrate the birth of Christ at this precious season of the year simply by consent. Let it be January 6, March 28, or April 19. Just donít let the opportunity slip past to rejoice in the Incarnation! God is the great gift-giver, and a seasonal time when we give gifts to one another reminds us to celebrate anew the grace we have received in Christ Jesus.

The Cost of Christmas

Yet merely to mention the giving of Christmas gifts makes some people cringe.

For one thing, there is quite an expenditure involved in celebrating Christmas in modern America. A Pittsburgh bank says it has calculated the true cost of Christmas for 1998. Suppose you buy your true love all the items in the carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas." You know, itís the swans-a-swimming, lords-a-leaping, and partridge-in-a-pear-tree song. Each year the PNC Bank Corp converts the total tab into current prices. For 1998, the bill for all the items ó if purchased repeatedly on each day, as the song suggests ó comes to $58,405.09. Just to buy each item once is $14,214.90.

Letís suppose you are going to be far more reasonable. Christmas still is likely to have you spending more money on gifts and indulgences in December than you will spend in any other 30-day period of the year. Christmas is expensive!

Then there is the problem of finding just the right gift ó particularly at the last minute. Would I panic someone to remind you that we have only five shopping days left? Canít find Furby? The store doesnít have your wifeís size? You still donít know what to get your hard-to-shop-for Dad?

And donít you wish you could have the good fortune some shoppers in Willmar, Minnesota, had a few days ago? CNN carried the story of a man who is driving up in a white limo, wearing a white tux and gloves, and playing what they termed "Christmas angel" to shoppers. He drove up to a movie theater and bought tickets for a crowd of people standing in line. He went into a department store and paid for the coat a mother had picked out for her daughter. At Kmart, he walked up to people at random and gave them wads of $250 in cash to use for their shopping.

Last-Minute Shopping

Ultimately, however, Christmas is about Calvary. And the "cost of Christmas" cannot be counted accurately in the currency of an American bank. It cost heaven its centerpiece and the Eternal Word his rights as God. It cost him a human lifetime of some 35 years or more in frailty. It subjected him to a Roman cross and to separation from the Father and Holy Spirit.

"About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ĎEloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?í ó which means, ĎMy God, my God, why have you forsaken me?í " (Matt. 27:46). With these words of anguish, Jesus let us know that the price for human redemption was being paid in full.

Dying with Jesus that day were two criminals who had run afoul of the Roman justice system. By their own admission, they were being put to death on the basis of what their deeds deserved. Unlike Jesusí case, there had been no miscarriage of justice in their trials and sentencing.

True to form for his belligerent life, one of the men being crucified along with him said, "Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!" (Luke 23:39, The Message). Insofar as we are informed in the biblical text, that man died still bitter and still cursing, still lost and still far from God. The other criminal had a change of heart about his wasted life at the end ó and became the original "last-minute shopper."

"Have you no fear of God? Youíre getting the same as him," said the dying thief to the vitriolic man. "We deserve this, but not him ó he did nothing to deserve this" (Luke 23:40-41, The Message). Then the man being justly executed for his crimes against Rome and about to die still lost and still far from God turned to the Son of Man and said, "Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom" (Matt. 23:42, The Message).

His situation and request could as well be put in these words: "Jesus, you donít deserve what is happening to you. And you and I, fellow-thief, deserve precisely what is happening to us. But Jesus, dare I ask you now for something I most certainly donít deserve ó Godís forgiveness, heavenís peace, a place with you in paradise!" And so the man who was on a cross because he deserved to be there was given what neither he nor anyone else deserves ó eternal life with the Son of God.

Who says there are no real bargains for last-minute shoppers?

Surprised by Godís Love

The story of the Thief on the Cross is a Christmas story because it illustrates the lengths to which God will go to find just one more dying sinner. And that is ultimately what Christmas is all about. God loved you too much to stay in his safe, remote heaven when you were about to die and be lost. God loves you so much that you can still come to him even at the end of a life of frustration and disappointment and receive the fullness of his grace.

Is it better to "shop early" and give your life to Christ in your youth? Do you avoid regrets by doing so? Do you salvage precious time for Godís glory that otherwise would be lost to sin? Yes. Absolutely, yes! And the fact that I have known Jesus from the earliest days of my life is a blessing for which I praise the Lord and thank my parents, Odessa Porterfield, and a church in Middleton, Tennessee. But not everyone has the advantage of loving, caring people to reach to him or her in lifeís earliest and most approachable years.

Iím talking to some people today who got anything but love, encouragement, and spiritual security in their early lives. Some of you were neglected. Some of you were abused. Some of you were made angry and cynical early on.

There are others of you who started with the security of being loved only to have your innocence and confidence about life stolen from you. As a student, you were just a bit slower than your peers. Your employer unfairly passed you over for a promotion you were due. You were left behind by someone who said he would love you until he died.

When others leave you out, God chooses you! Your worth does not depend on what you can do or become but on how much God loves and values you. Isnít that an important lesson from the story of this man who died beside Jesus and shopped for the kingdom of God only at the last minute?


Many a person has been encouraged to believe that he or she could still matter to God, still be loved by God by the story of this unnamed thief dying beside the Son of God. For example, John Newton, the converted slave trader who became a preacher and a Christian poet, lay upon his deathbed. A young minister came to see him and expressed deep regret at the prospect of losing so venerable a laborer in the Lord's vineyard. "True, I'm going on before you, but you'll soon come after me," said Newton. "When you arrive, our friendship will no doubt cause you to inquire for me. But I can tell you already where you'll most likely find me. I'll be sitting at the feet of the thief whom Jesus saved in his dying moments on the cross!" Newton felt with Paul that he could only class himself among those who have been saved through infinite, amazing grace.

Perhaps all this is why one of my favorite Christmas quotes is this one from Desmond Tutu:

Our God knows our human condition from the inside. He did not shout good advice from a safe distance. He was embroiled in the muck, in the suffering, in the confusion and misunderstanding.

He was a baby. He was born. He lived. He died. He rose again.

Christís life says that God cared, God still cares, that babies matter, that family life matters, that homes matter, that people matter, that decent living matters, that relationships matter, and that our existence matters ó matters so much that God glorified it by becoming a human baby.

And that is why the story of the thief dying beside Jesus is a Christmas story. It is the story of how much someone mattered to God. More than that, it is the story of how much each of us matters to him.

The meaning of Christmas is Calvary, for Bethlehem ultimately required Jerusalem. And whether it is the sweetness of the cradle or the agony of the cross that eventually captures your heart to turn it to God, the important thing is for you to know how much you matter to God.

Jesus wants you to be saved more than he wanted to protect his own position. The One who was rich beyond measure became poor so that all of us who are in spiritual poverty could be rich. Even those who have waited far too long. Even those who have made far too many inexcusable messes. Even those who have only a few more breaths to take.

Are you a last-minute shopper? The shelves are still stocked with his grace, grace all-sufficient for your salvation!

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