Christmas: Why we want a refund on God’s precious gift.
I’m not sure if it’s a sign of getting older, or a sign of the times, when so many Christmas gifts are accompanied by a receipt, in case we want to exchange it.
With the queues at the return checkouts getting longer each January, it is worth reflecting on just what a gift actually is when it becomes so returnable.
In the language of the NT of course, the word for gift and the word for grace boil down to the same root. It is the reception of something that is not deserved, something that has not been earned. In fact, you could say that grace – or a gift – is something that comes so starkly from beyond, that it stops us dead in our tracks.
It enters our economy of relationships, beliefs and expectations and reshapes it. It totally defies our system and cannot be absorbed by it. But is it really possible then for anyone to give or receive a gift? Because the moment you have given someone a gift, they are indebted to you and they either have to reject your gift, or get you one in return in order to unburden themselves of their debt. What began as a spontaneous and free act of grace can so easily become a predictable transaction. And the giving of Christmas gifts can sometimes become simply an obligatory seasonal transaction.
A true gift, and true grace, enters our economy from outside – and disrupts it. As some French thinkers say, perhaps the best way to understand how a gift works is to think of a counterfeit coin. It enters our economy from outside, but cannot be assimilated by it. It disrupts our economy, it stops us dead in our tracks.
This is how true grace works, and we see it supremely in the life, and death and resurrection of God’s gift to humanity, Jesus Christ.
‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son Jesus Christ.’ Unfortunately, ‘he came to his own but his own did not receive him.’ Why not? He disrupted their economy. Accepting a gift is no easy thing.
Half way through history’s most celebrated teenage pregnancy, the young mother bursts into a spontaneous song of praise, which is an affirmation of God’s grace and a prophetic glimpse at how this gift would be received. She sang, ‘My soul glorifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my saviour.’
Later on, the mighty deeds that God is to perform are good news for some and bad news for others. ‘he has brought down rulers from their thrones and lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.’
Supremely, the gift of God’s own Son was destined to be accepted by some, and rejected by others. He would certainly stop people dead in their tracks. Some would truly allow him to disrupt their economy and reshape their lives. For such folk, there is a certain humility, a readiness to be transformed. You might say that they receive a gift graciously.
On the other hand, there were those less willing to be transformed, less ready to be stopped dead in their tracks, less happy to have their economy disrupted. For these folk, there is a certain pride that makes it impossible to receive a gift. And the gift of God’s son is finally returned to the shop on Good Friday. Probably we align ourselves with the first group, because, after all, we have accepted Jesus into our lives. But the question is, have we actually received him as a gift? As one who stops us dead in our tracks, as one who disrupts our economy. As one who comes so starkly from beyond that he reshapes our priorities, our treasured traditions, our spending habits?
After all, it is possible nowadays simply to accept Jesus not as a gift but as little more than a spiritual transaction. Pray the prayer, take the step, make the decision in return for a ticket to heaven.
To spend the rest of your life untransformed (Apart from an ability to quote bible verses to remind you of your heavenly transaction), unconverted (except to the religious entertainment sometimes mistaken for worship) and unredeemed (because this side of heaven nobody’s perfect). But what kind of Jesus have we then accepted?
The challenge, the controversy, and the disruption brought by God’s gift to the world is all swamped beneath the sentimental Jesus who brings us all that we wanted on our Christmas list, a Jesus who brings us the kind of kingdom we want.
Well what do you know? Without realising it, we have traded Jesus for Barabbas. Roll on Good Friday.
(Published in the Baptist Times, Jan 1, 2004)