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Christmas: Real Gifts Romans 6:23b; II Corinthians 9:15
In 1983 we moved to south Florida from the northern cold country and we never looked back. Oh, we moved back north for awhile, but our Minnesota hearts thawed out and we belonged to Florida. I like to say that we grew up in, and left a state where it is extremely cold and moved to a state where it is extremely hot. From one extreme to the other. Some of you have experienced such extreme moves in coming here and you know that it brings lifestyle changes.
One of the first things we did in 1983 was to start planting all kinds of flowers and shrubs in our yard to beautify it. We knew exactly what to buy and plant, although some of them were hard to find in south Florida. What we did was plant all of our favorite things that blossomed so well up north and, as we quickly discovered, died of the heat and sandy soil here. It was a disaster. We had to learn gardening all over again. Even regular grass doesn't last long in Florida. It grows in the winter and then dies in the summer heat.
One of the first things we did for Christmas 14 years ago was go out and buy a beautiful large real Christmas tree. It was gorgeous and just like the one we used to have up north. There were two problems, however. It cost me three times as much as the one up north and after a week it had lost almost all of its needles. I'll never forget the day we took it down and carried it outside to be picked up by the garbage men, needles were piled high everywhere. We were fortunate it didn't catch fire and burn down the house.
Christmas 1984 brought on a bigger crisis. Should we have a real Christmas tree again or a fake Christmas tree? It seems that we were teetering on the edge of a earth shaking decision that would determine whether we had a merry Christmas or an unmerry Christmas. It was such a significant decision in our home, after we decided to buy a fake tree, we didn't tell the children, who would all be visiting us over the holy days. We decided that we would see if they could tell the difference. Actually, we cheated, only a little. We went and bought a few boughs of real aromatic greenery and placed them under the tree so it would smell like a real tree. That was not too successful so we bought a spray can and just before the children entered the house we sprayed the area so the whole house smelled like pine perfume. We didn't fool anybody. I would guess many of you have struggled with this monumental issue yourselves. In Bud Blake's Tiger comic strip, even he wrestled with this issue. Two young boys were talking about Christmas. One said, "My folks got us an artificial tree this year." The other little fellow asked, "Doesn't that bother you?" The first boy said, "Not as long as the gifts are real!" Actually that's the only Christmas issue that matters for everything else can be fake but if the Christmas gift is real then Christmas is real. In our two texts Paul comments on the real Christmas gift by saying "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal "life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). Then after writing to the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 9:15) about their generosity in response to God's generosity to them in Christ he simply concludes with, "Thanks be to God his indescribable gift!" The art of gift giving and gift receiving is an important theological issue in the Bible and in real life.
Jesus in our New Testament reading (Matthew 7:7-29) asks his hearers, "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Would you? I wouldn't. "Or if he asks for a fish, will you give him a snake?" Would you? I don't think so. "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" The point is, if we who are evil, know how to give good gifts to loved ones, which we do at Christmas and at other times, then God, who defines Himself as love, certainly knows how to and will give us good gifts also. The Psalmist in our Old Testament reading (Psalms 84:11) says in the Living Bible Translation, "No good thing will the Lord withhold from those who do what is right." God's nature is to give us good gifts.
The Apostle Paul uses for the word "gift", "charisma." The "charisma" was a totally free and unearned gift which the army sometimes received. On special occasions, for instance on his birthday, or on his accession to the throne, or the anniversary of it, an emperor handed out a free gift of money to the army. It had not been earned; it was a present; it was simply a gift of the emperor's kindness and grace.
So Paul says, "Our sin has earned us death. If we got the pay we had earned it would be death. It is death that is due to us as a right." Then Paul goes on to say, "But what we have received (from God) is a free gift, a "charisma"; we did not earn it; We did not deserve it. What we have earned is eternal death, but out of his grace God has given us the gift of eternal life, a really indescribable gift."
If you undertook this Christmas to give your dearest one the gift most needed, what would you select? Focus in on that for a moment. Or, if you sought to make the gift as symbolic of yourself as possible, what would you give? When thoughtfully given, a Christmas gift provides some kind of answer to those two questions. On the one hand it attempts to meet the needs and the tastes of the person for whom it is intended. On the other, it reflects to some degree the appreciation and the insight of the person who gives it. We search the stores and catalogs for the gift characteristic of ourselves and appropriate for our friends, and if the search is successful people say on Christmas morning, "How like him to send that, and the gift is just what I want and need!"
Sometimes we answer one question to the detriment of the other. Sometimes the gift represents the giver, but shows very little consideration for the recipient. Men, in particular, are often accused by their wives or female family members of giving gifts that reflect masculine tastes. But it works both ways. An elderly aunt one Christmas decided that she would give all of her nieces and nephews a small pin cushion. Everyone needs one, right? One small boy who received such a gift was reported to have written the following thank you note back to his Aunt: "Dear Auntie, Thank you very much for the beautiful pin cushion. I have always wanted one, but not very much."
So that's the challenge in gift giving. An appropriate gift does two things: it reveals the affections of the person giving it and it suits the needs of the person to whom the gift is given.
A Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard told the parable of a prince who fell in love with a young maiden in his kingdom but wanted her to love him for who he was, not what he was, a prince. At first he thought he would order her to the palace and there propose marriage, but even a prince would like to feel that the girl he marries wants to marry him for who he is. Or perhaps, he thought, he could arrive at her door in full splendor, and with a bow, ask for her hand in marriage. But even the prince wanted to be wanted. Again, he thought he could masquerade as a poor peasant and try in that way to gain her interest. After he proposed, he could pull off his "mask". But, he thought, such a masquerade would be a phony, a fake.
Finally he decided to give up his princely robes and move completely into her neighborhood and to be himself. There he would take up daily work as, say a carpenter. During his work in the day and during his time off in the evening, he would take time to get acquainted with the people around her, begin to share their interests and concerns, begin to talk their language. He would really become one of them. And in due time, should fortune be with him, he would make her acquaintance in a natural way and hopefully she would come to love him as he already had come to love her. He would then ask for her hand. This he did, and when she did come to love him, he told her who he really was.
This is Kierkegaard's way of summarizing God's Christmas gift-giving decision. God wished to join our lives with His in a loving relationship and he could have done it anyway he wanted. But he rejected a fake way and came as a real gift revealing his loving nature and at the same time meeting our deepest need.
Does the artificiality of the season disturb me? Not at all! Not as long as the "indescribable gift" is real. "The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
But it can't be real for you, until you really accept the gift.
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