“In moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there are opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance,” the recently bereaved man remarked. “I chose to demonstrate grace.” Pastor Erik Fitzgerald’s wife had been killed in a car accident caused by an exhausted firefighter who fell asleep while driving home, and legal prosecutors wanted to know whether he would seek the maximum sentence. The pastor chose to practice the forgiveness he often preached about. To the surprise of both him and the firefighter, the men eventually became friends.
Pastor Erik was living out of the grace he’d received from God, who had forgiven him all of his sins. Through his actions he echoed the words of the prophet Micah, who praised God for pardoning sin and forgiving wrongdoing (Micah 7:18). The prophet uses wonderfully visual language to show just how far God goes in forgiving His people, saying that He will “tread our sins underfoot” and hurl our wrongdoings into the deep sea (v. 19). The firefighter received a gift of freedom that day, which brought him closer to God.
Whatever difficulty we face, we know that God reaches out to us with loving, open arms, welcoming us into His safe embrace. He “delights to show mercy” (v. 18). As we receive His love and grace, He gives us the strength to forgive those who hurt us—even as Pastor Erik did.
On Christmas Eve, 1944, a man known as “Old Brinker” lay dying in a prison hospital, waiting for the makeshift Christmas service led by fellow prisoners. “When does the music start?” he asked William McDougall, who was imprisoned with him in Muntok Prison in Sumatra. “Soon,” replied McDougall. “Good,” replied the dying man. “Then I’ll be able to compare them with the angels.”
Although decades earlier Brinker had moved away from his faith in God, in his dying days he confessed his sins and found peace with Him. Instead of greeting others with a sour look, he would smile, which “was quite a transformation,” said McDougall.
Brinker died peacefully after the choir of eleven emaciated prisoners sang his request, “Silent Night.” Knowing that Brinker once again followed Jesus and would be united with God in heaven, McDougall observed, “Perhaps Death had been a welcome Christmas visitor to old Brinker.”
How Brinker anticipated his death reminds me of Simeon, a holy man to whom the Holy Spirit revealed that “he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:26). When Simeon saw Jesus in the temple, he exclaimed, “You may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation” (vv. 29–30).
As with Brinker, the greatest Christmas gift we can receive or share is that of saving faith in Jesus.
According to an old story, a man born in 270 AD named Nicholas heard about a father who was so poor that he couldn’t feed his three daughters, much less provide for their future marriages. Wanting to assist the father, but hoping to keep his help a secret, Nicholas threw a bag of gold through an open window, which landed in a sock or shoe drying on the hearth. That man was known as St. Nicholas, who later became the inspiration for Santa Claus.
When I heard that story of a gift coming down from above, I thought of God the Father, who out of love and compassion sent to Earth the greatest gift, His Son, not through a chimney but through a miraculous birth. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy that a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son whom they would call Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
As lovely as Nicholas’s gifts were, how much more amazing is the gift of Jesus. He left heaven to become a man, died and rose again, and is God living with us. He brings us comfort when we’re hurting and sad; He encourages us when we feel downhearted; He reveals the truth to us when we might be deceived.
How can you give the gift of Jesus today?
As the story goes, in 1763, a young minister, traveling on a cliffside road in Somerset, England, ducked into a cave to escape the flashes of lightning and pounding rain. As he looked out at Cheddar Gorge, he pondered the gift of finding shelter and peace in God. Waiting there, he began to write a hymn, “Rock of Ages,” with its memorable opening lines: “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”
We don’t know if Augustus Toplady thought about Moses’s experience in the cleft of a rock while writing the hymn (Exodus 33:22), but perhaps he did. The Exodus account tells of Moses seeking God’s reassurance and God’s response. When Moses asked God to reveal His glory to him, God answered graciously, knowing that “no one may see me and live” (v. 20). He tucked Moses into the rocks when He passed by, letting Moses only see His back. And Moses knew that God was with him.
We can trust that just as God said to Moses, “My Presence will go with you” (v. 14), so too we can find refuge in Him. We may experience many storms in our lives, as did Moses and the English minister in the story, but when we cry out to Him, He will give us the peace of His presence.
I gazed out at the rolling green hills in Lancashire in northern England, noticing the stone fences enclosing some sheep dotted around the hills. Puffy clouds moved across the bright sky, and I inhaled deeply, drinking in the sight. When I remarked about the beautiful scene to the woman working at the retreat center I was visiting, she said, “You know, I never used to notice it before our guests would point it out. We’ve lived here for years, and when we were farmers, this was just the office!”
We can easily miss the gift of what’s right in front of us, especially beauty that’s part of our everyday lives. We can also easily miss the beautiful ways God works in and around us daily. But Christians can ask God’s Spirit to open our spiritual eyes so we can understand how He is at work, as the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus. Paul yearned that God would give them the wisdom and revelation to know Him better (Ephesians 1:17). He prayed that their hearts would be enlightened so that they’d know God’s hope, promised future, and power (vv. 18–19).
God’s gift of the Spirit of Christ can awaken us to His work in us and through us. With Him, what may have once seemed like “just the office” can be understood as a place that displays His light and glory.
One spring after a particularly dreary winter during which she helped a family member through a long illness, Emma found encouragement each time she walked past a cherry tree near her home in Cambridge, England. Bursting out at the top of the pink blossoms grew blossoms of white. A clever gardener had grafted into the tree a branch of white flowers. When Emma passed the unusual tree, she thought of Jesus’s words about being the Vine and His followers the branches (John 15:1–8).
By calling Himself the Vine, Jesus was speaking of an image familiar to the Israelites in the Old Testament, for there the vine symbolized God’s people (Psalm 80:8–9; Hosea 10:1). Jesus extended this symbolism to Himself, saying He was the Vine and that His followers were grafted into Him as branches. And as they remained in Him, receiving His nourishment and strength, they would bear fruit (John 15:5).
As Emma supported her family member, she needed the reminder that she was connected to Jesus. Seeing the white flowers among the pink ones gave her a visual prompt of the truth that as she remained in the Vine, she gained nourishment through Him.
When we who follow Jesus embrace the idea of being as close to Him as a branch is to a vine, our faith is strengthened and enriched.
Stephen grew up in a rough part of East London and fell into crime by the age of ten. He said, “If everyone’s selling drugs and doing robberies and fraud, then you’re going to get involved. It’s just a way of life.” But when he was twenty, he had a dream that changed him: “I heard God saying, Stephen, you’re going to prison for murder.” This vivid dream served as a warning, and he turned to God and received Jesus as his Savior—and the Holy Spirit transformed his life.
Stephen set up an organization that teaches inner-city kids discipline, morality, and respect through sports. He credits God with the success he has seen as he prays with and trains the kids. “Rebuilding misguided dreams,” he says.
In pursuing God and leaving behind our past wrongdoing, we, like Stephen, follow Paul’s charge to the Ephesians to embrace a new way of life. Although our old self is “corrupted by its deceitful desires,” we can daily seek to “put on the new self” that is created to be like God (Ephesians 4:22, 24). All believers embrace this continual process as we ask God through His Holy Spirit to make us more like Him.
Stephen said, “Faith was a crucial foundation for me changing my life around.” How has this been true for you?
Those raised in the English village with William Carey (1761–1834) probably thought he wouldn’t accomplish much, but today he’s known as the father of modern missions. Born to parents who were weavers, he became a not-too successful teacher and cobbler while teaching himself Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. After many years, he realized his dream of becoming a missionary to India. But he faced hardship, including his child’s death, his wife’s mental-health problems, and for many years the lack of response from those he served.
What kept him serving amid difficulties so that he could go on to translate the entire Bible into six languages and parts of it into twenty-nine others? He said, “I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit.” He committed to serving God no matter what trials he encountered.
This continued devotion to Christ is what the writer to the Hebrews counseled. He called for those reading his letter to not “become lazy” (Hebrews 6:12), but to “show this same diligence to the very end” (v. 11) as they sought to honor God. He reassured them that God “will not forget your work and the love you have shown” (v. 10).
When William Carey was old, he reflected on how God consistently supplied his needs. “He has never failed in His promise, so I cannot fail in my service to Him.” May God similarly empower us to serve Him day by day.