hirteen years ago we celebrated Christmas with my parents in the foothills of the Sierras in central California. During our traditional Christmas Eve gift exchange, my sister handed me a Christmas card. I opened it to find, not a gift certificate, or a check, or a couple of bank notes, but a snapshot of her 1990 GMC Suburban (remember, this was 13 years ago).
For a split second I thought, She’s giving me a photograph of her car? Then I realized the car was the gift she and her husband were giving to me and my family.
There are very few times in my life when I’ve been blown away by a gift (there have been others, but not many), and that was one of them. Among the thoughts that went through my mind was, How do you say thank you for such an extravagant gift? I mean, how many sweaters, CDs, socks, books, calendars, neckties, gift cards, and gift subscriptions to the Adventist Review can you give that would ever match that kind of generosity?
I know some families each year vie to outdo each other with more and more expensive and luxurious Christmas gifts, but thanks to my modest denominational paycheck, that’s a temptation I’ve never had to resist much.
I share this story as a reminder that we all live under the shadow of a gift so huge that the entire universe cannot contain it. Jesus’ humble birth, His life of sacrifice and service, His atoning death, His resurrection to never-ending life, and His promise to rescue His people from this sin-sick planet is a gift with benefits we’ll enjoy throughout eternity.
Some Christians frame their response to God’s extravagant gift in terms of a debt that has to be repaid. They miss the essential point of gift-giving: We don’t give so someone will return the favor and give us a gift of equal or greater value; we give gifts to show our appreciation or admiration for the persons to whom we give them.
God’s overwhelmingly generous gift of Jesus Christ proves His high regard for each one of us (as well as for the larger population that has yet to respond to this generosity). It means that although we owe Him a debt we can never repay, and should, by all rights, serve Him out of a sense of obligation, in fact we are His sons and daughters, heirs of an indescribably rich inheritance.
Therefore, we don’t serve God in the spirit of the elder brother in Jesus’ famous parable about the lost son who complained to his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders” (Luke 15:29*). Nor do we serve Him in the spirit of the vineyard workers who complained to their master, “These men who were hired last worked only one hour . . . and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (Matt. 20:12).
Our response should more correctly correspond to the apostle John’s declaration: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).
God’s love, demonstrated in His outrageously generous gift, is not so much a reminder of the great debt we owe as much as it is a model of how we should treat one another. We can’t all be as materially generous to one another as Oprah is to her studio audience, or as my sister was to me. But we can all demonstrate a charitable and giving spirit when it comes to our dealings with one another.
The world’s greatest poverty has less to do with a lack of financial resources than it does with the lack of genuine concern and compassion. Often we share space with neighbors, work associates, friends, church and family members, who are experiencing their own kind of loneliness, guilt, alienation, and discouragement. Because we’ve tasted of God’s indescribable generosity, we will, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, be more open to opportunities to share His love with them in the form of a greeting, a hug, a note, a small kindness.
The Christmas season isn’t the only time to exchange gifts; it’s just the season when we’re reminded that God’s love is the only gift we can give to others that will never wear out. Indeed, the more we give it, the more we receive it.
* Bible texts in this editorial are from the New International Version.
Stephen Chavez is managing editor of Adventist Review.