Christmas Preview Dinner Devotional 2014

Good evening! What a wonderful time we have already had together tonight.  Kirsten, Maggie and Whitney, thank you so much for using your musical gifts for us tonight. This is my second time coming to a Women’s Christmas Preview and I am just in awe at the creativity of the women who decorated these tables. Thanks for making this night so beautiful! We have been praying that you would feel the love of Jesus and be reminded of the message of Christmas. And although I am excited tonight to share my story with you all, I would prefer to be eye to eye with each of you. If we had time, I would want to sit down and hear about your life, because I love stories. To be honest, I am a sucker for Christmas movies. I don’t know why, because they are usually incredibly cheesy and very predictable, but they allow you to slip into a story.  And I would suggest that I’m not the only one—we all love stories. And I think that the reason we love stories is because we are a part of one. God has been writing His redemptive story for all of eternity and our lives are given meaning by knowing His story and seeing how we fit into it. So tonight I want to share my story with you, and show how God’s grace has been ever-present in my life. 

Almost twenty-four years ago on Christmas morning, my mother wondered when her first child would come into the world. The doctor had predicted a due date of Christmas Eve but there she was, very pregnant with me, who was apparently too content to stay safe and warm inside the womb. Two weeks later I finally arrived and my parents named me Karis, which in Greek means “grace.” To understand the meaning behind this name, I have to go further back. 

Years before, my parents met while working with a Christian ministry on a college campus in Texas. My dad’s life had been transformed as a young college student and he started devouring the Bible, trying to understand everything he could about God. He had become a different man from the long, blond-haired hippy he had been years before. My mother had become a Christian a bit earlier and had served on many mission trips during her college years around the United States and overseas to share about the love and hope of Jesus. When my parents married, they desired to teach their children about this same good news of Jesus that had transformed their lives. However, a roadblock came when my mother had three miscarriages in one year. Through the pain these deaths brought, my parents realized that having children was not a promise, but truly a gift. They could sympathize with several women in the Bible who found themselves barren and unable to have children like Sarah, Hannah, and Rachel. There is comfort in knowing that your story is not new to God … that the circumstances in your life are put there for a reason and the more we see how we fit into God’s story, the more those circumstances make sense and we can become thankful rather than bitter. So, when I was born, my parents named me Karis (grace), because the gift of this new and precious life was given to them. 

My birth was an example of what we call God’s common grace.

In the Bible, from John 1 it says that “from the fullness of God’s grace, we have all received one blessing after another.” God is so gracious. He was so kind to give my parents a child, a blessing that flowed from the fullness of God. They didn’t do anything to deserve it. I would bet that each of you could point out some instance of grace in your life, probably many instances of grace. Think of such a time. Maybe it was someone in the car in front of you at McDonald’s paying for your meal or the most perfect day for your summer picnic, or a bonus at work this holiday season you didn’t expect. God’s common grace is everywhere you look; you just have to have eyes to see it. I am so grateful to be born into a family that loves the Lord and serves Him with their lives. But I didn’t do anything to deserve that blessing … it is a gift of God’s common grace. 

But there is another aspect of God’s grace, which is called God’s saving grace.

Soon after I came out of the womb, my parents were teaching me about the Bible and telling me about Jesus. My mother worked with a ministry that taught children about God. When I was four and five, I would go with her every week to hear a Bible story, a missionary story, and sing songs about Jesus. During one particular week, the woman speaking caught my attention as she talked about sin. She defined sin as anything that went against God’s commands. I had heard the Ten Commandments so I knew that I was wrong in disobeying my parents or being mean to my brother. But she also said that I sin by being impatient or demanding my own way, that by doing so, I was choosing to follow my own rules rather than serve and follow the God who made me. She said that even one wrong was enough to create a barrier between me and God, earning me eternal punishment. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death … the payment for sin is not life forever with God … it is eternity away from God in Hell. God is Holy, she said, which means totally blameless and free from sin. To be in relationship with Him, we also had to be holy. 

That could be some terrible news, but thankfully she didn’t end there.

She told me about God’s saving grace. She said that God knows us and therefore knows that we are sinners. He wanted to save us from our sin so He provided a substitute. The other half of Romans 6:23 says … but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. My sin had earned me just punishment from God, but God sent His own Son Jesus to this earth as a substitute to take that punishment Himself. She said that Jesus had died and with His death, He had taken away the punishment for all people’s sin, so that the barrier put up between me and God could be removed if I believed in His death for me. The story didn’t end with death, however, because the power of this story is that Jesus defeated death—He rose from the grave and returned to Heaven and from there He rules everything. In order to join Him in Heaven one day, I had to respond to Jesus in repentance and faith, she told me. I needed to acknowledge my sin before God and ask Him to forgive me, believing in Jesus, who by dying took my punishment. Well, what child doesn’t want to go to Heaven? Afterwards, I prayed with her, confessing my sin to God and asking for forgiveness, declaring that I believed He had taken my punishment and asking Him to help me live a life of obedience to Him. Then the woman told me that I was forgiven, that God accepted my prayer and made me clean and that I could trust Him to help me live the new life He promised me. 

It was at this time when I believed God and received His saving grace, when He made me aware of my need for Him to forgive my sin and save me. This was the moment of God’s saving grace in my life. But the good news is that His grace didn’t end there. After we are saved, we are also in need of God’s sanctifying grace.  This is God’s grace that walks with us as we struggle to choose what is right and to love others. It is God’s sanctifying grace that encourages us to choose His way even though we have failed, that draws us to repentance when we do something wrong and changes us so that we think and act like Jesus. Once you have seen God’s common grace in your life and once you have experienced His saving grace, which I hope you will think deeply about tonight, you are then in much need of His sanctifying grace. This was definitely the case for me.

I grew up mostly in Texas and attended a church where I memorized Bible verses and heard stories of great missionaries who had risked their lives to tell others about Jesus. I could answer all the questions correctly and earned the praise of others around me. I wanted to be the perfect, example child and took much pride in myself for being so virtuous. I still loved God, but I had gotten confused with who deserved the glory. When I would earn some award or accomplish some great feat, I would bask in the praise of others and forget the God who gave me the talent and opportunity to be successful in the first place. I was in much need of God’s sanctifying grace to correct my self-centered attitude.  

One evening at church when I was in eighth grade, the teacher was talking about living as examples of Jesus.

She then asked us to identify one of our peers who exemplified this. I must admit that this challenge made me swell with pride. I looked around the room trying to think of someone else so I wouldn’t sound so self-absorbed by choosing myself.  However, as the hands went up around the room, the one name mentioned was a 7th grade girl named Kacie Simpson. I figured I must have heard wrong. Certainly my peers would have picked me as the great Christian example girl. But my peers could see through me and it was a profound turning point in my life. I went home that evening asking myself and asking God a lot of hard questions. Who am I? What is my identity wrapped up in? What is my motivation for doing good and for living life? What does Kacie Simpson have that I don’t have? 

My questions drove me to realize that my faith and trust was wrapped up in my own accomplishments rather than in the saving grace of God. Therefore when I failed, I crumbled. My identity was bound up in who I thought I was, which is quite scary as a hormonal teenager, because that image is continually changing based on the responses of others. I was self-deceived by taking pride in my self-declared identity of virtuous living while really being self-centered, caring little about others and seeking only to receive praise for myself. 

It was during this time that my parents sat my brothers and me down to share some life changing news. My dad worked for the military, which would usually imply multiple moves, but we had lived relatively stable lives in Texas except for a few years in Japan when I was little. I liked my life where it was. I had all the friends I could want, and the perfect situation at school and church. I wanted nothing to do with moving. So, when my dad broke the news that we would be moving to the country of Germany, you could say I was a little upset. And by upset, I mean crying for days and feeling like my life had ended, which, you may be thinking, is just a typical teenage response, and you are probably right. Nevertheless, my brothers and I were less than thrilled and my parents were puzzled at how we could be blind to the great opportunity before us. Parents always know best, by the way, because we are all now very thankful for the years we got to live in Germany. However, my identity was threatened by this move. I didn’t even know where Germany was on the map, and I had no desire to leave everything I knew. I would have to start over. But God’s sanctifying grace had brought me here.

Months later I went on a retreat with teens from our church. Now I have two younger brothers, one of them is only 17 months younger than me and we shared a lot of the same friends growing up. While I was living in the sin of pride in my obedience and self-importance, my brother lived the rebellious life. I decided to take the role of his policeman and as you can guess, this created quite a strain in our relationship. As our moving date neared, I realized that one of the only four people I would know in the whole country of Germany would be my brother who hated me. And at this retreat, I started to understand how my self-righteousness towards my brother was actually negatively affecting my relationship with friends, because they knew things about my brother that they were hiding from me. Sin spreads folks. It multiplies like a tumor and powerfully affects everything and everyone. 

My self-centered, self-righteous attitude finally snapped later that evening at a bonfire.

I was sitting on a resting golf cart with a few friends while everyone was roasting marshmallows. I accidentally kicked the golf cart into gear and we started racing head on towards the crowd of people around the fire. I lost all control and although another boy finally pulled the key out of the ignition, it was too late. One of the adult leaders was down. She had volunteered to hang out with middle schoolers for the weekend, God bless her, and now she found herself in an ambulance headed to the hospital with a broken femur. Sometimes God uses painful things in our lives to get our attention, but He also uses painful things in the lives of others. As I was faced with the reality that I had sent this woman to the hospital, I was confronted with my fake virtuous life that my peers could see right through, proven by the fact that my brother hated me, and my friends were keeping secrets from me. And soon I would be moving to a new country, losing everything I had worked for. I kept telling myself what a terrible person I was and I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. How could anyone love me after this? How could God? Thankfully, God’s sanctifying grace came in the form of two friends who found me and embraced me. I felt compassion flowing through my whole body, drying my tears and helping me breathe again. These two friends told me that all was ok, that they still loved me, and that above all, God loved me. I spent the rest of the night on the back porch listening to everyone sing praises to God as I rededicated my life to Him. I was scared. I didn’t know what was ahead for me. I felt alone, but I knew God was there. I knew that when I moved to Germany with my family, HE went with me. In fact, HE goes before me in everything. And in His love, He would not leave me out in the cold. I saw that I needed to trust Him to write my story, to take me to other lands and protect and guide. I needed to believe that He had and would continue to orchestrate everything for His glory. That meant that He had allowed the events of the evening to happen. This woman would now sit in a wheelchair for the next eight months, but God had used even the most unfortunate of circumstances to get my attention, to show that He was the one in control, and that I needed to trust Him. 

I moved to Germany with a newfound joy that could only have come from the Lord. I was excited about starting over, about living to bring glory to God rather than glory for Karis. Germany gave me a clean start with my brother. I no longer desired to merely be his policeman. I didn’t lie for him or hide things from my parents, but looking out for his good became my motivation rather than showing off my own goodness in comparison. But more than all of this, God gave me a great passion for His word and I started reading the Bible in desperation, looking for answers to my brokenness and wanting to know HIM more. 

Now let me tell you. This is no fairy-tale where everything went as planned and I have now turned into a perfect person. The other day at the after school program where I work, I demanded something from a student rather than listening to her about a situation. When I came back to apologize and ask for forgiveness, she could only respond by writing a verse on the board: “Romans 3:23 All have fallen short of the glory of God.” Wow. Yes. I, an adult she could trust, had fallen short of the glory of God. I had sinned. But thankfully because of God’s saving grace through Jesus’ death for my sin, God forgives me too. And because of God’s sanctifying grace, I am able to admit my imperfections, mistakes, and even sins. I can be forgiven and make choices that please God, and love others over myself. I am a new woman. And when God looks at me, He sees the righteousness and goodness of Christ over me. And this saving and sanctifying grace is for anyone who believes in Christ Jesus. Can you see God’s common grace in your life tonight? Have you received His saving grace? Are you responding to His sanctifying grace? 

Maybe you are sitting here thinking that you are far too gone, far too guilty to be forgiven.

God says that there is nothing, no sin that is too great to be forgiven, no list of grievances too hard to blot out, because Christ’s payment was enough. Nothing more is needed except your response to Him. 

Or maybe you are like me, seemingly righteous and virtuous on the outside and yet dead on the inside, full of pride and self-righteousness because of your attempts at virtue. Christ’s righteousness and sacrifice is enough for you. It covers everything and gives you a new start. You can become a new creation, a new woman THROUGH HIM. And you don’t have to wait until you get yourself all together or until you get older, or until you reach some point of moral standard that qualifies you for God’s grace. God’s saving grace meets you where you are, which is where you sit tonight, and He offers you new life. Jesus says in the book of John, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Receiving God’s saving grace is easier than you might imagine. 

Admit to God that you have sinned

Believe that Jesus took the punishment for your sin when he died.

Receive God’s saving grace to be forgiven from your sin.

And become a part of the Christmas story as you receive God’s grace through His Son Jesus Christ.