By Joel A. Hess –
By now, many of you have exchanged gifts, said thank you and you’re welcome, and wished each other a merry Christmas. Gift giving and receiving are strange things. At first, it seems like a great idea. But what a stress when it’s all said and done! First, it begins with a lot of pressure to get the right thing for so and so. Then, as we are on mid-journey to the party, we have this bad feeling that we forgot to buy a gift for so and so. As we get closer to Christmas Day, we crumble under the weight of having too many people on our shopping list. Many of us begin in the fall. Somehow, we are left running around and just grabbing items on Christmas Eve! Was that you?
While buying gifts, many of us may even begin to resent the fact that we “have” to get someone a gift. How ridiculous, right? They are just going to buy us something at the same price, and both of us will have something we could have bought ourselves. As parents, we experience the stress of keeping up with the Joneses. God forbid we only put one gift under the tree. Sometimes we feel guilty because we can’t afford that thing our kid really wants. Gift giving and receiving becomes a burden and not a joy.
The worst thing happens at least once a year: Someone surprises us with a gift, and we have nothing to give them in return!! Oh, the horror, the shame, the guilt!
This past week, my fellow hosts Ross and Paul were talking about the stress of gift giving. I’m probably the number one culprit. As I complained about the whole enterprise, I asked my friends whether or not gift giving was a good tradition. It was then I realized what was going on. Here we are complaining about gifts—gifts of all things! Only sinners can turn gifts into guilt, shame, and stress!
We do this to one another, and we do it with God’s gifts also. Look at the people of Israel in Jesus’ day. God gave them the gift of the Sabbath. Just rest on the seventh day, for goodness sake! That’s not hard! Amazingly, the Jews of Jesus’ day turned this rest into a time of stress and guilt. Did you rest enough? Did you rest too much? They even yelled at Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath! Somehow, with the help of Satan, humanity slowly turns God’s gifts into guilt.
Christians do it today just the same. This past year, as Christmas fell on a Sunday, some pastors decided not to offer a service on Christmas Day. One particular popular pundit applauded these pastors who withheld God’s gifts on Sunday. He said something about how his dad made him go to all the services on Sunday, and it almost turned him away from Christianity. Can you believe it? This guy blames the grace of Christmas instead of himself or his dad. Another guy wrote that his people need a break once in a while. A break? God gives us the gift of grace, forgiveness and hope! We get to sit and receive God’s Word, enjoy His peace, and be nourished by His body and blood. This is not work. Going to a church service is not a hard task.
This happened at my church when we decided to offer the body and blood of Jesus every Sunday. Some people actually thought that would be too often. “We don’t want to get used to those gifts or take them for granted,” they complained.
Only fools like us can turn a wonderful thing like God’s life-giving Word and heavenly Supper into a heavy burden. If you go to a church that feels like it’s working all the time, you aren’t going to a Christ-centered church, or maybe you are letting Satan turn God’s gifts into a burden.
We all are tempted to turn God’s gifts of forgiveness and eternal life into burdens; just as many of us do at Christmas. The problem is not God’s grace or gifts—it’s us. God surprises us with a gift we could never afford or deserve: the life of His only begotten Son, forgiveness and eternal life! Instead, of just enjoying it, we feel guilty and burned, while feeling like we owe God. Some preachers even preach this message. Instead, just say thanks and put your feet up! It’s a gift!
O Lord, continue to break our stubborn hearts and open them to find rest in your forgiveness and eternal life.