Archive for December 21st, 2012

Christmas and gift giving

Ok, I know I do this every year, but I can’t help it. Someone keeps on bringing it up and I have to say something. Just yesterday a well-meaning reporter for our local newspaper asked me how I would respond to those who say that all the “commercialization” that surrounds the celebration of Christmas distracts us from its true meaning? We spend too much money. Shopping brings stress and anxiety and the hustle and bustle and worry drives everyone crazy! Why can’t we just forget the gifts, spend time around the fireplace thinking warm thoughts of love and gentleness, sipping hot chocolate, and maybe enjoying some simple, home-made gifts (which are far more meaningful than anything you could possibly buy from one of those greedy merchants at the mall or online)? This is how we remember the Reason for the Season. 

You’ve heard it before. Indeed, we hear so much that many of us have begun to think it is actually true.

It isn’t.

In fact, I will go so far as to say, if you really believe this, you don’t understand the true meaning of Christmas.

And I don’t mean that we’re free from sin in the celebration of Christmas. There are real sins connected with our celebration that we need to be mindful of and avoid:
– There are people who spend more than they can afford on gifts and go into unnecessary debt. That’s bad stewardship and that’s sin.
– Many still think (in spite of all the evidence to the contrary) that money and things can bring happiness and contentment. Materialism is idolatry.
– Many fall into the trap of focusing more upon the hassle and the expense of gift-giving than upon the privilege of giving. This is the sin of selfishness.
– Many don’t spend enough time with their children and loved ones and neglect the cultivation of their relationships with others. That’s another form of self-centeredness.
– Many forget that there are people in need of basic necessities and do nothing to help them. That’s the sin of indifference and a lack of love for our neighbor.

And ALL OF THESE SINS are present with us and contradict the true meaning of Christmas.

But the “true meaning of Christmas” police are saying more than this. They imply (and often say bluntly) that giving unnecessary and expensive gifts to friends and family is a waste of money that encourages selfishness, covetousness, materialism and indifference to others. And thus, these actions are a great dishonor to God and contrary to “the true meaning of Christmas.”

To which I say, Bah! Humbug!

Christmas is the celebration of the infinitely loving Father who gave His Son to be the Savior of the world. Christmas is the celebration of the infinitely loving Son who gave Himself joyfully and willingly to suffer and die for the salvation of the world. Christmas is the celebration of the infinitely loving Spirit who continues freely to give all good gifts to us and to all men. Christmas is the celebration of the incredible, indescribable, hilarious, ecstatic, generosity of the Triune God who has always existed in joyful, holy, loving communion and whose love moved Him not only to create but to redeem the world and mankind. Christmas is the celebration of the astonishing, unbounded, overflowing, love of the Triune God who gives us all things richly to enjoy and daily loads us with benefits.

And we’re worried that somehow if we give some gifts to our friends and loved ones that we’ll distract them from the true meaning of Christmas? We’re worried that if we spend money on gifts to express our love for others that we’re missing the true meaning of Christmas? Really?

If extravagant generosity automatically tempted men to these sins, then the holy, Triune God would be a more dangerous Temptor than Satan himself. The Lord gives to us generously, without measure, pressed down, overflowing, exceedingly, abundantly above all that we can ask or think — and He does this every day. He doesn’t merely give us necessities, He gives us far above what we need. He gives us luxuries, things we could easily get along without, and He does it every day. And yet, He’s not afraid that His extravagance will transform you into a materialistic monster who covets his way to hell.

I even have a Bible passage that proves this: Deuteronomy 14:22-27. There, the Lord commands Israel to take a tithe of their increase and spend it for anything their hearts desire. The only requirement is that they enjoy these things before Him in Jerusalem. Obviously, we don’t know the income of the average Israelite, but it’s not hard to imagine that this would have been a huge celebration, filled with expensive, once-in-a-lifetime-type foods and drinks. Think of how much your tithe would purchase for a feast and the things you would be able to obtain if you spent it all on special items? It sounds like gross extravagance, like something that can only lead to evil, right?

And yet, the Lord commands Israel to do this so that they can learn to fear Him (Deut. 14:23). This is the same reason given for the public reading of the law that was commanded every seven years (Deut. 31:10-13). God says this extravagant celebration was designed to accomplish the same thing that hearing His Word was intended to accomplish. If you obeyed Him and put on this huge party, you would grow in His fear. How can this be?

The answer is fairly simple. The triune God is the God who has eternally and continually loved. The Father has loved the Son from eternity. The Son has loved the Father from eternity. And the Spirit has eternally been the One through Whom the Father and the Son love one another. This is why John can say, “God is love.”

But go further: Love means giving. Giving yourself. Giving gifts. Giving to meet the needs of others. Giving to enrich and delight others. Giving to bring joy and hilarity to others. Giving so that others may know your love for them. NOTHING is more important to the true and living God than this. And that’s why He continues to do it. All the time. Every day.

So that when He sent His Son into the world — giving us the most extravagant and expensive, valuable gift imaginable — He wasn’t acting out of character. He wasn’t doing something unusual. He was simply being Himself. And He didn’t worry that His extravagant gift would spoil you, or make you arrogant and ungrateful, or tempt you to become a materialist. He knew that His extravagance would humble you and eventually make you like Him. He knew that His love would provoke your love for Him in return so that you would become generous like Him. So He commands Israel to take a tithe of their increase and buy whatever their hearts desire and enjoy it with the poor and the Levites before His face, knowing that if they do this, the sheer extravagance and joy of such a celebration would destroy covetousness and materialism and remake them in His likeness.

The covetous man doesn’t have any desire to spend his money for others. The materialist has no regard for the joy he might bring to others with his wealth. This grand celebration was intended to expose the ugliness of covetousness and materialism. And a joyful, generous, ecstatic celebration of Christmas (along with our other feasts) will do the same for us.

God doesn’t attack consumerism and materialism by being stingy with His gifts or restricting the number of them because He’s afraid that you will become a selfish pig. Rather, He lavishes His gifts upon you so that you will learn to be like Him. And Christmas, if we celebrate it rightly, gives us the opportunity to grow in godliness (God-likeness). By giving generously and joyfully, we imitate the One who has loved us and who delights in nothing more than in giving good gifts to His children.

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