In the aftermath of this morning’s Christmas sermon and a week of getting and giving Christmas presents, I realized most of us don’t know what a gift is. Since most of me and my extended family’s gift-giving money goes toward our collective six kids, all age 5 and under, this year we decided to draw names for the adults. You get one name and buy them a small gift, rather than having to buy for all the adults. I don’t know if you have an elf at your family gift exchange, but we always have an elf at ours. The elf is the person sitting nearest the tree who has the duty of reading the tags on presents and delivering them to the proper recipients. I was the the elf this year.
Not uncommon for me, I started making various jokes. One of them was when I realized there were additional gifts under the tree for adults, outside of the one-gift-per-adult allotment from the name drawing. For example, my mom drew my brother Pete’s name, but got him 3 gifts. I of course made sure everyone knew the additional gifts were because she loves him more than the rest of us, getting him two gifts from the goodness of her heart, outside of the one obligatory gift she had to get him from the drawing (she defended herself by saying she just got good deals and still kept everything under our set expense amount).
My brother Pete also bought gifts for adults outside of the person he drew a name for. One of these gifts was a box for me. I told everyone this was a gift from the goodness of Pete’s heart, whereas his name-drawn gift was simply obligatory. All of the name-drawn gifts were obligatory.
The gift he got me from the goodness of his heart was a yellow glow-in-the-dark piece of rubber dog poop. True story.
(What was really funny was listening to the kids fight over who got to play with “the poop.” “No, it’s my turn to play with the poop…” and so on.)
In my sermon this morning, a main point I was trying to make about Jesus coming to earth was the vast gap between how holy God is (way holier than we could ever imagine) and how sinful / not holy we are (way worse, way further apart from God than we could ever imagine).
With the point being: we don’t deserve Jesus, yet we typically live like we do. We typically live like him coming to earth to die for our sins was no big deal to him. We typically live entitled not only to Jesus himself, but also to a whole bunch of other things we feel we deserve from God.
Which got me thinking about Christmas gifts again. As a kid, I definitely felt entitled to my Christmas presents. Every kid does. Try not giving your kid any presents next Christmas and see what happens. The feeling would be similar to if your boss didn’t give you your paycheck. Outrage. Hurt. Confusion.
The Bible often talks about the good news of Jesus as a gift (John 4:10; Romans 5:15-17; 6:23; 2 Cor. 9:15; Ephesians 2:8-9; Revelation 22:17). In Romans 4:4 and Romans 6:23, the gift concept is directly contrasted with the idea of a wage. A wage is something you earn, like your paycheck from your boss. You aren’t grateful for it; you earned it. If you weren’t given it, it would be an injustice and an outrage. Notice Romans 4:4-5 which goes into this comparison in detail:
Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
One person has worked for their salvation and doesn’t get a gift; they get a wage out of obligation. Another does not work for their salvation, but instead trusts God’s ability to make them right on his power (gift), not their power (obligation).
Most of us have no idea what an actual gift is. And it shows.
Most of us live very entitled in our relationships with God. If we’re single, we want God to give us a spouse. If we’re married, we want God to change our spouse or give us a different spouse. Whenever bad times happen, we tell God what we deserve instead and how if he doesn’t give it to us, we will take our ball and go home.
Sounds a lot like the kid who got socks for Christmas instead of the go-cart and pony he wanted.
Or like the parent who worked all week long and was notified by their boss there would be no paycheck.
Let’s define gift the way the Bible seems to: as the opposite of a wage. The opposite of something you’ve earned, deserve or expect. For the sake of analogy, stop and ask yourself have you ever gotten a gift like this? I mean a physical gift that someone gave you that you truly weren’t expecting and that you really had no business getting. My guess is only a few have truly experienced this. I’m talking someone randomly ringing your doorbell while holding a check for $100,000 or randomly throwing you the keys to a new car. If you put yourself in one of these hypothetical situations, how would you feel?
I think most of our first responses would be to refuse the gift, knowing we didn’t deserve it and there must be some kind of mistake. Or we’d know there had to be some strings attached so our wise skepticism would win the day. But if we were able to get over these hurdles, the resulting feeling would be so cleansing, so pure, so joyful. This is called gratitude.
Most of us never get to experience the bliss of spiritual gratitude because we’ve never realized how much we don’t deserve Jesus: how holy he is, how sinful we are and how we have no business being saved by, let alone friends with, the Creator of the universe. We instead plug away in our feeling of entitlement, trying to make God proud of us with our good behavior, hoping he gives us toys instead of coal.
If we don’t get the toy we want, we are outraged, hurt and confused.
We look at Jesus on the cross and say, “Not enough. Give me more.”
We want our wages.
Meanwhile Jesus just wants us to enjoy the gift of himself.
A gift we’ve never deserved and will never deserve.
The gradual realization of this, and the intentional time spent soaking in this as we mature in our walk with Christ will change everything about the way we live and respond to the world. The more we realize we don’t deserve Jesus’ mercy, the more of his mercy we get to experience, and the more cleansing joy and peace and freedom we get to have from that mercy.