The One Gift No One Exchanges

Pastor Jeff Struecker

I hope you got everything that you wanted for Christmas. I hope you got the right size. I hope you got the right color. I hope that it was an awesome Christmas for you. 


But my guess is, because of the coronavirus, because of travel, because of the white Christmas that a whole bunch of people had with a lot of snow, maybe the one thing that you really wanted for Christmas, you didn’t get. 


Maybe you had a daughter or a son who was away halfway across the country at college, and more than anything else, what you really wanted was for them to show up and spend a little bit of time with you. It didn’t matter what kind of gifts we exchanged; just being able to spend time with them would have been the perfect gift. 


Maybe you got the perfect gift this year. Maybe your son or daughter left college, braved the weather, and they traveled with all of those crazy coronavirus restrictions. Maybe they came to your house, and you had a chance to hang out with friends and family this Christmas. That is the kind of gift that no one exchanges, right? 


Well, this is the week right after Christmas, and we’re going to wrap up our Christmas series. If you think our timing was off, it wasn’t. We saved the best for last, because today we’re going to talk about the greatest gift anyone will ever receive. In fact, for the month of December, we’ve been talking about the gift of God. God gives himself. Literally, Christmas is about God giving Himself, a baby born in a manger, when God took on flesh. We call him Emmanuel. His name is Jesus. That word Emmanuel means “God with us”. The name Jesus literally means “he saves his people”. When God gives the gift of himself, he wraps it with other gifts.


What we’ve done over the month of December is, we’ve taken a look at some of those other gifts like the gift of faith, the gift of hope, and the gift of peace. If you were tuned into our Christmas Eve service, you saw that that baby, that little bundle of joy, was wrapped up in swaddling clothes. But really, he gave the gift of joy to those shepherds hanging out in the mangers, joy to people on earth in whom God’s favor dwells. 


There is a medieval theologian who talked about gifts and the greatest gift of all time. This medieval priest, or theologian, is Thomas à Kempis. He wrote one of the most important Christian books of all time, a book called The Imitation of Christ. Thomas à Kempis made this statement: “A wise lover,” listen to this, “values not so much the gift of the lover as much as the love of the giver.”


Today, what we want to do is talk about God, the gift giver. The perfect gift giver, giving the perfect gift, the gift of love. Here’s what I want you to understand from the sermon. I’ll just give it to you right up front. This is the thing that I want you to go away remembering: No one exchanges the gift of love. You may take back that crazy Christmas sweater. You may decide that you just don’t want to use that small appliance that your husband gave you because he didn’t have any idea what else to get you. But no one exchanges the gift of love. 


No one exchanges the gift of love


To wrap up this advent season, we are looking through the book of Romans. We’re in chapter five, and we’re going to look at verse five. We’re going to do a deep dive into one verse. But in order to set up this verse, let’s start back at the beginning of Romans chapter five.


Let’s go back to verse one and look at these other gifts that the perfect gift giver, God himself when he gave himself as a gift to humanity, gave. Let’s see the other gifts that He gave along with himself. Here’s what Roman says:


Ro 5:1–5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We have also obtained access through him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, 4 endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. 5 This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.


What we’re going to do for just a few moments today is roll up our sleeves and go really deep into this one Bible verse. We’re going to look at the phrase “God’s love”. We’re also going to look at the phrase “our hearts” and see how it is the Holy Spirit that connects God’s love to our hearts. Here we go. 


Let’s start with the first part of this verse. Let’s talk about what it looks like to be loved by God, because what Romans chapter five is trying to explain to us in the midst of all of this craziness is that God has given the perfect gift. He is the perfect gift giver, and he gives the perfect gift. His perfect gift is the gift of love.


Now, I want to make sure that we know what we’re talking about, because when we talk about God’s love, we’re talking about divine love. We’re talking about pure love. We’re talking about perfect love. Can we just be honest? God’s love is different from the way that we love. God’s love is unconditional. Now, I need you to tune in for just a second and pay close attention to what I say next. 


God is the only self-sufficient one. He needs no one. He needs nothing. Therefore, no one, nothing can put a condition on God and make God react, make God do something that He doesn’t want to do. Do you following me? 


That means that when God loves, it’s not because you and I did something good. It’s not because you and I did something right. God loves unconditionally. There is no condition that he places on the way that he loves. There is nothing that you and I can do to help him love us more, to make him love us less. I need you to make sure that you understand this, because when it comes to love, when it comes to the love of God, I watch Christians, and sometimes it really seems like you’re trying to earn God’s love. 


We sometimes try to earn God’s love by doing good things. Sometimes we try to earn God’s love by being a good boy or a good girl and thinking, “Because I’m doing good or because I’m being good, God is going to love me.” Let me give you a quick illustration. You guys get Christmas cards in the mail, and you like getting Christmas cards. I kind of like getting a Christmas card. I mean, I’ve got no problems with the Christmas card. The little note inside the Christmas card is awesome, but here’s where it goes wrong for me.


This is the dreaded, the hated, Christmas letter. It’s the Christmas letter that sounds something like this: “Hey everybody, 2020 has been a crazy year, but let me tell you how awesome I am. Let me tell you how awesome my family is. Let me tell you how awesome my marriage is. Let me tell you how awesome my life is.” That’s what the entire Christmas letter is. I get two sentences into this, and then I’m done. I’m just not going to read it anymore.


I want so much for somebody to write the Christmas letter that says,”2020 was brutal. My husband lost his job, and we lost our mortgage. The mortgage company kicked us out, and my life started to fall apart. My son just got arrested, and my daughter is hooked on prescription drugs. I think I’m going to have to turn to stripping in order to make enough money, to be able to buy some food for my family. That’s 2020 for me. How’s it going for your family?”


Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of honest truth that people put in the Christmas letter. I think what people are trying to do when they send the Christmas letter out, is they want you, they want all of us to think about their life as everything is going right. “I’m doing good. Everybody’s doing good. There’s nothing bad.” Except for all of us know, that’s just not the whole story. That may be part of the story, but that’s not the whole story. 


See, I think that Christmas letter can sometimes be a good analogy for the way that Christians approach God, the way that Christians act (let’s just be honest) at church. We put the face on, and we act like everything is awesome, when in reality, it’s not. It’s terrible, but we would never let our guard down and let people know, “Man! I’m struggling right now.”


I think sometimes Christians, to be frank, are trying to earn God’s love by doing good things, but God’s love is unconditional, so doing good doesn’t make Him love you more. Let’s just be honest. Sometimes we try to earn God’s love by being good. In fact, some of our Christmas traditions, we don’t have any idea where they came from. We’re just trying to be good boys and good girls and do the good thing that we think God expects of us around Christmas time. And we hope by doing good or by being good that God will be pleased with us. 


The problem is, God’s love doesn’t work that way, and I just want to tell you today that you are approaching God’s divine, unconditional love from the wrong starting point. With this, “I do good so God loves me,” or, “I am good and so God loves me,” you’ve got the wrong starting point. You and I are not the proper starting points for God’s love.


The proper starting point is for whatever reason, God decides to look down from heaven and see a guy like me with all of my mistakes and all of my messes and all of my failures and chooses unconditionally to love me anyway. That’s God’s love, and it’s a lot different than our love. That’s the kind of gift that nobody in their right mind would ever go take back and exchange for something different, because you just can’t improve on that gift. 


What Romans 5:5 talks about is God’s love, and then the next phrase that it says is about our hearts. Here’s what Romans is trying to tell us: God’s love teaches us how to love. We really were created in the image of God. We were created with God’s character, his nature, and his attributes. But because of sin, our hearts have become broken and our hearts really don’t know how to love…until God shows us how to love through his Holy Spirit.


Being loved by God…teaches us how to love. 


Literally the words of Romans 5:5 help us to figure out how to love. If you want another Bible example of this, look at the way John, the beloved disciple, the one who learned how to love by watching Jesus, talks about how we learn how to love and how God’s love teaches us how to love. He says it this way in 1 John 4, starting in verse 10:


1John 4:10-13 10 Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice[c] for our sins. 11 Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in[d] us and his love is made complete in us. 13 This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 

God’s heart starts to become our heart. Our heart starts to beat like God’s heart does. We start to learn how to love and start to develop a capacity to love unconditionally, because of the Holy Spirit. It is only through the Holy Spirit that a human being can possibly start to love like God loves. 


Loving God


If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “Love whom, Jeff?” Well, the answer is, first and always first, love God. You really don’t have a natural inclination to turn to God, to love God, to serve God until you start to realize, by the power of the Holy Spirit, who he is and what he has done for you. Why would God, with no obligations on him whatsoever, choose to send his Son from heaven, to dwell on earth, to live as a mortal man, and to pay a tremendous price? -to give his life for our sins?


1 John 4 says the only explanation for that, is that God loves you, and you can now start to love God in return because he has first loved you. That’s the first, and that’s always the most important love that you have in your heart. 


Loving Others


Number two is your love for others. You see, love for others really comes from a capacity to Jesus’ first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God, with all of your heart,” and then the second commandment Jesus says is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” At 2 Cities Church, our mission on earth is to love people, to love people well, to love people like God loves people. 


Let me tell you how we love you each other. We stopped doing what we claim is one of the most important things that we do as a church. We paused our life groups over the Christmas season, not to take a break because we didn’t enjoy hanging around each other. We paused our life groups because there are some people that are getting connected with our church, and we would love for them to get involved in one of our life groups, but it can be kind of scary to get involved with a group that’s been going on for months or for years. 


Everybody knows everybody, and they’re all really close to one another. It can be really intimidating to break into a group like that. So we paused our groups, just for the strategic purpose of being able to invite somebody and to say, “Hey, my group is on break, and we’re going to start back in the middle of January. We would love for you to join us. And by the way, it would be super comfortable for you to join us, really natural for you to join us because everybody in our group is on break, and we’re all going to start back together in January.” 


Why would a church pause the thing that they claim is most important? For you. For you who are not connected, we paused and took this strategic break, just so that you would feel comfortable getting involved with us when our groups meet together again in January. 


Let me tell you how we are loving people outside of our church. This is the
2 Cities” that 2 Cities Church refers to. Just in the last 10 days, listen to this, we don’t have a lot of money and a lot of resources by any means. In the last week and a half, we bought hundreds of gifts for people who are low income, wrapped them up, and gave them away last week. We helped somebody who just got a job, but couldn’t afford the work outfit, the work uniform that they needed. We bought that uniform for them and delivered it last week.


There was somebody whose water was about to get shut off on Christmas Day because it was overdue. So we called the water company, and we paid the water bill entirely for them. Somebody didn’t have clothes for their eight-year-old and five-year-old daughters. We showed up on Christmas Eve with clothes. Somebody had a broken appliance, and we showed up and made sure that that appliance got fixed in a week and a half. This is our way of showing up to our neighbors who have never stepped foot in this church, and saying, “Man, we love you, and we want to help you. If you’re hurting, we’re here for you.” 


Because God loves us, He started to work in our hearts, and now we start to have a soft heart for you whom we’ve never even met before, because of what’s going on in our life. Though we have very, very limited money and resources around here, the limited money that we do have, the limited resources that we have, we’re going to put into loving other people well.


Loving Yourself


Third and finally, it’s loving yourself. I want to end with this, because I think if I were to sit back and look at what’s wrong with our culture, with the American culture, what it screams to me louder than anything else is, people who don’t love themselves and are trying everything that the world has to offer to numb the pain. They are coping with the pain of not being comfortable with who they are, how God has made them, and what’s happened in their lives. They are hoping that something will deaden that pain. 


I could tell you a dozen examples of warriors who have come to see me, both as a chaplain or as a pastor. They’ve sat in my office, and they started to spill the story out of what they did on a battlefield, what they saw on a battlefield, and what they were asked to do for our country on a battlefield. Almost every one of them, though these words will never come out of their mouths, what they’re basically asking is, “How could God possibly love somebody like me who’s done what I’ve done?”


What they’re asking me is, “How can I be comfortable looking myself in the mirror, after what I’ve said, after what I’ve done, after what I’ve seen?” There are people that are struggling internally, and no amount of relationships outside are going to get fixed until the relationship inside gets fixed, until they start to become comfortable with who they are, with what they’ve done, and with a God who is big enough, that he loves them unconditionally anyway, and has already taken care of everything necessary to draw them into a relationship with himself. 


He is the only one in the universe that can fix you from the inside out. Nobody else, no drugs, no relationships, no performance, no job, no promotion, no fancy car or nice house can do that for you.You need somebody who can fix you at the soul level.


This bring me to the final phrase from Romans 5:5, “God’s love was poured out in our hearts, and God poured his love out through his Holy Spirit.” Do you know that that phrase “poured out” is the exact same phrase the original language uses to refer to Jesus’ blood on the cross? It is literally the same words that those first four books of the New Testament used when talking about Jesus’ love on the cross. What the writer of Romans is saying is, “I want you to know how much God loves you. And the only way for you to really understand how much God loves you is, you have to go look at the cross. If you want to measure how much he loves you, you’ve got to look at the blood that was poured out.”


It’s not how much blood was poured out for you; it’s whose blood was poured out for you that really shows you your worth to a Holy God.” You see, being loved by God teaches us how to love ourselves. It teaches us how to love others. But more than anything else, being loved, when you look at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, you learn what it took to be made right with God, and now you can be loved by God. Now you can love God.