Many of us have had the experience of receiving an unexpected
gift right out of the blue. The gift came from a person that we
really didn’t know all that well but to our chagrin the gift turned
out to be great. We didn’t ask for it, nor expected to receive it, but there it is, an exceptional gift, from someone who is not really a good friend. Now what is our reaction? What is the first thing we do in response? We have to out-gift them. We have to come up with a gift to give in return. We cannot be beholden to such a giver. Now, what drives us to outgive is not gratitude or friendship but a deep sense of unease, a sense of obligation and indebtedness. We might even say to appease a guilty conscience. Unexpected gifts seem to clay claim upon us. They make us uncomfortable. We find it hard to look the giver in the face until we reciprocate them adequately. By giving us such a gift, that person has power over us. And this simply will not do!
Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but for people like us it is more difficult to receive. How so? Every gift comes with a claim upon us. To illustrate, let’s assume that your teenage daughter receives a very expensive gift from her boyfriend. No father worthy of the name is going to let that happen. Why? He knows that a gift like that comes with a sense of entitlement that is inappropriate for teenage lovebirds.
So along comes the Christmas season with its constant mantra, “Christmas is all about giving, it’s about giving back.” I think that’s one reason secular people like Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged goodness and generosity. I am not a Scrooge. I enjoy giving and I love Christmas because it brings out the best in me. It feels good and it is ennobling and empowering.
Perhaps Dickens’ Scrooge and his transformation have done more to shape our notion of Christmas than Luke’s Gospel has. The focus of Luke’s Gospel is God’s gift to us. Dickens tells us to give to others. We love “A Christmas Carol” because it is much more congenial and reinforcing to our self perception. Dickens is saying that deep down, at heart even the worst of us can become generous, giving people. We may have to be terrified to get there but that’s who we really are. Yet, as I read Scripture, I am convinced that we are far better givers than receivers not because we are at heart generous people but because we are proud and arrogant people. The Christmas story (Luke’s not Dickens’) is not at all about how blessed it is to be a giver but about how crucial it is to see ourselves as needy receivers.
We prefer to see ourselves as givers: powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people, whose essential goodness motivates us to employ some of our competency to bestow gifts on the less fortunate. However, this perception is a direct contradiction to the first Christmas.
There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we actually are. Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to sitenstrate that we with our power, competency, capability and generosity had nothing to do with His coming and His work. God does what Luther calls His strange work, beyond the bounds of human imagination. He resorted to angels, a teenage virgin and a peasant couple to get it done. It was not our idea. We did not ask for it. He did not run it by us for our approval. All we can do when we look at Bethlehem is receive it. An undeserved gift given by an unobligated giver.
This is counterintuitive to the extreme. The popular gospel of our times is you have it within you to fix what ails you. The solution to all of your pathologies lies buried within. You can fix yourself if your potential becomes reality. So look within, climb the ladder, ascend through your own version of spirituality. These and many other strategies of self salvation abound in our times.
But the Christmas story is good news that says after having tried for generations to cure your pathologies God’s solution comes to us through a virgin giving birth in a cattle stall and placing her precious one in a feeding trough. This strange account tells us how to be receivers. There is a divine order to life. We are to become receivers first before we become givers. The Christian life is one of constant receiving. We are not saved by the love we give but by the Love we trust and receive freely. This is humbling and threatening to my self perception as a generous giver, good at heart. I like power and standing on my own two feet, taking charge, setting things right, helping the helpless, fixing what is broken. It is a good feeling.
I do not like picturing myself as needy, helpless, broken, powerless, empty handed and utterly dependent. Nothing is more repugnant and insulting to capable, competent, good people than grace. Yet nothing is more satisfying and liberating. It is the only way God saves sinners.
God loves us by giving us a gift. Christianity is about a Stranger coming to us and blessing us with an extraordinary gift. This gift calls us to see ourselves as we really are—helpless, empty handed, unable to extricate ourselves from our dilemma. Christmas is not about looking within and glorying in our generous hearts. It is about looking outside of ourselves to the One who comes to save us from our sin. We are to receive His gracious gift. This gift will lay a claim and sense of indebtedness upon us that will transform us. Think about it, Christmas is God giving a baby to save us.
Soli Deo Gloria,