“I thought we decided we weren’t going to exchange gifts?” she mumbled to her husband after receiving a surprise gift from her brother.
Have you ever received a surprise gift from someone that made you feel inadequate or even angry? Perhaps I am cynical (well, yes, actually I am), but I believe everyone has had this experience. Immediately the victim offers excuses like, “I thought we were not giving gifts this year,” or worse, “I have something for you too. I’ll mail it.” A strange sort of embarrassment overcomes us, or even guilt. What should be a happy time of receiving a gift turns into a frustrating feeling of comparing generosity. It is hard to just, plain receive a gift. Even when someone pays the bill of a great meal, we reply, “I’ll get the tip.”
Sadly, the competition to give consumes our minds in December. Adulthood does that. When we were in our single digits, we ran out to the Christmas Tree in awe of the gifts piled beneath it. We never wondered who paid for it. We even enjoyed the idea of a fat man in a red suit carefully depositing them just for us and disappearing, no questions asked. We yelled out, “Thanks!” and ripped open the packages while mom and dad (or just mom or dad) smiled in their pajamas. No guilt, just pure pleasure filled our hearts and minds.
But then we learn nothing is for free in this dark world. From college to our first job, we struggle to survive. Everyone needs to carry their weight. There are no handouts in life. We are taught no one has our back except for us. We even judge those who need our handouts, while we cheerfully serve at the food bank.
Pastors are tempted to make the center their Christmas sermons about giving as they prepare the message. There are even clever memes and posts from prominent theologians telling people stuff like, “Want to put Christ back into Christmas? Do what Jesus did. Feed the poor, love the outcast, serve the needy.” Christmas is the season of giving, we are told. Well intentioned families make their kids give away their old toys. Merry Christmas, Jesus is born, and do not let him find you just sitting there. Christmas time is loaded with guilt. Heaven forbid you end up like the lady above, looking silly with a gift in her hand and nothing to give back.
Yet, the first Christmas came as quite a surprise. In the quiet of the night, unexpectedly, God plopped an amazing gift right in our hands – Jesus.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11,12).
There we sat, empty handed. Worse, dirty handed, with hands that had done harm to others, mouths that had killed reputations, hearts that sought only ourselves. And God gave us His one and only Son, the one whom He loves! He even surprised the shepherds when who-knows-what was on their minds. “A savior has been born to you!”
This Jesus went to work. He gave to the down and out. He gathered the unrighteous and outcast. He fed hungry and desperate people. He eventually offered Himself up on the cross for all of humanities sins and rose again from the dead. Then, He told His Church to go out, giving the gift He won of forgiveness and eternal life. Like those Christmas presents which just magically appeared when we were young, Jesus gives you freedom from guilt, shame and fear!
Naturally, we can feel kind of inadequate to receive such a ridiculous and generous gift. Trained by our world we want to respond, “I’ll make it up to you.” “I’ll prove to you I was worth it.” “I’ll pay the tip.” Yet, what can we possibly do to pay Jesus back? Like little kids looking for a present for dad, what can we possibly give Him that He doesn’t already have? And do not say your heart! Your peace-filled, joy filled heart is His gift to you!
Do not bother showing up to God’s Christmas feast with anything in your hands. Just sit down and enjoy His free gifts and say, “Thanks!” And when someone surprises you with a gift this season, just say thanks! No guilt for you or them.