What did you get for Christmas?

Christmas morning has come and gone.  Did you have a good Christmas?  Did you get everything you wanted?  When I think about those questions, I remember the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story,” one the most highly rated and best-loved Christmas movies. In my family, our long tradition was to watch it on Thanksgiving after our meal.

 In case you haven’t seen it or don’t remember it, let me set the stage for you.  The story is set in Indiana around 1940.  Ralphie Parker, a nine-year-old boy, is maniacally focused on one thing:  getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.  But every time he has the chance to lobby for it, he is told that he shouldn’t have one because “you’ll shoot your eye out.”  He hears this from everyone: His mother, his teacher at school, even from Santa Claus, tells him, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”  In the clip below, it is Christmas morning.  All the gifts have been opened, and there was no Red Ryder BB gun for Ralph. 

I love seeing how Ralph’s father, “the old man”, delighted in giving his son what he wanted. Our Father, too, is delighted to give of good gifts that we have been asking him for. All through Advent, like Ralphie Parker, we were waiting expectantly for Christmas.  We have been asking and waiting.   One of the things we longed for though the Advent season was Love.  Did we get what we wanted? Indeed, we have, each one of us, received the gift of God’s Love. 

It is entirely possible that we overlooked that one present.  In our times with family and friends, amid the piles of torn wrapping paper, did we fail to see the Gift of Love we were given? 

God’s gift of love may be hard for us to recognize; we may not know that we have received it. Ralphie’s BB gun, that was easy. But we may not recognize the love we got at Christmas.  What does the Gift of Love look like?

  • The Gift of Love looks like God incarnate. A newborn baby, lying in a manager. God made man, born in a stable among the animal feed and waste, lying in a manger, an animal’s feed trough. God’s gift of Love is the gift of himself, in the most unexpected and improbable way. [Luke 2:7]
  • The Gift of Love looks like eternal life [1 John 4:9] and a full life– the life we were meant to have. We don’t wait until heaven to experience eternal life. The life-giving Gift of Love is here for us, now. [John 10:10(b)]
  • The Gift of Love looks like the cross.  This may not be our favorite thing to think about this time of year, but the cross is the reason Jesus came: to suffer and die for us, sealing our redemption. [ Hebrews 9:12, 1 John 3:16]
  • The Gift of Love looks like the love of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. A father who waits and watches for our return and runs to us to welcome us home. Our father doesn’t wait for us to measure up. As soon as we turn toward him he runs to us and embraces, loves and restores us. [Luke 15:20]
  • What does the Gift of Love looks like being accepted and cared for not because of what you have done, what you are doing, or what you will do, but because of who you are:  a son or a daughter of the Father. [1 John 3:1 ]

What are you doing with your gift?

This may seem an odd question, “what are you doing with your gift?” We are loved and we are saved.  We are given a full life – a real life.  We are made sons and daughters.  Isn’t that all there is? Isn’t it enough? Yes and no.  It is an awesome gift, but that is not all there is to it. It is worth asking ourselves:  What are we doing with our gift?

Some of the gifts we receive have an intrinsic value.  You can open it up, say thank you, and display it on a shelf.  Simply having them is enough. A work of art is an example here; anything decorative really.  But there are other gifts whose true value comes from using them.

If someone gave me a new Porsche for Christmas, that would be awesome!  But wouldn’t it be odd if I never drove it; if it never left my garage? You might wonder how much I appreciated that gift! I certainly would not be getting the full value of having a Porsche.  You could say I was missing the point of having a Porsche.

When I was 17 years old I was really into bluegrass music, especially songs that featured the banjo. Earl Scruggs was the man as far as I was concerned! As Christmas approached that year, I let my parents know I REALLY wanted a banjo. And on that Christmas morning, I got my banjo!

I loved that banjo.  It was a great gift.  I still have that banjo, When I thought about “what was the best Christmas gift I ever got?”, I remembered my banjo. Yet as much as I wanted a banjo, after nearly forty five years I still can’t play a note.

As happy as I was to receive the gift of a banjo, the truth was I loved the idea of playing the banjo, but I didn’t love the idea of doing all the hard work required to actually learn how to do it. I bought some instruction books, and I’d give it a half-hearted try every now and then, but I didn’t really practice, I didn’t pursue lessons.  My banjo sits unplayed and mostly forgotten. 

My old banjo is s great example a gift that I have not made use of. I still have it – it is still it, but I am not getting the best out of that gift. Thinking again about the Gift of Love we have received, are we making use of it?  Is it making beautiful music or is it sitting on display or perhaps relegated to the back of a closet or collecting dust under the bed? 

When we make use of God’s Gift of Love, we can become sons and daughters who love others with the same outrageous unbridled love the Father has for us. 

The Gift of Love is ours, whether we put it to good use or not. I still have my banjo.  The fact that I don’t put it to use doesn’t mean I no longer have it.  The gift of Love we have received is ours.  We don’t have to earn our status as sons and daughters.  We cannot earn our salvation.

It is our, but the Gift of Love is something we are meant to use. It is not meant only for ourselves. The Gift of Love is given so that we can be transformed by it; so that we can become lovers.  It is a gift we are meant to pass on to others.  When we make use of God’s Gift of Love, we can become sons and daughters who love others with the same outrageous, unbridled love the Father has for us. 

In Paul’s letter to the early church in Ephesus, he wrote:

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.

Ephesians 5:1-2 (MSG)

God’s love is our gift.  It is gift that should transform us and make us into people who love with Christ’s love.  In the Bible we are given a succinct summary of what we are like when we have been transformed. We are patient and kind; We are not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. We do not demand our own way and are not irritable. We keep no record of being wronged. We never give up, never lose faith, and are always hopeful. (See 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.) I wish that described me, but it rarely does. I am still in the process of being transformed.

If we have not made full use of our gift, if we have not been transformed by it, what are we to do?  The story of my banjo is instructive here.  There is nothing wrong with my banjo.  I just never applied myself to the sometimes-hard work of learning to use it. If we do not find ourselves loving with Christ’s extravagant love, there is nothing wrong with the Gift of Love.  We need to apply ourselves to the sometimes-hard work of learning to use it.  Here is where the metaphor breaks down.  I can take lessons and practice the banjo.  If I apply myself diligently, I could become at least a passable banjo player.  Learning to love like Jesus is a different matter.

We can practice being loving.  We can try to make ourselves act with the love described in 1 Corinthians 13.  We may be able to pull it off, but only for a while.  Sooner or later, usually at a really bad time, the act will fail, and we will find we are not nearly so loving as we’d like to believe we are. As hard as we try, we cannot make ourselves into the conduits of love we are meant to be.

But there is hope; the Lord never asks for the impossible. If we are to become loving toward others as he is to us, there must be a way for that transformation to happen.

When we practice spiritual disciplines, with the intent of allowing God to transform us into conduits of his extravagant, unbridled love he will do just that: he will transform us. 

God will do the heavy lifting for us, if we let him.  There is a spiritual equivalent to taking music lessons and practicing our instrument. It is employing spiritual disciplines.  When we practice spiritual disciplines, with the intent of allowing God to transform us into conduits of his extravagant, unbridled love he will do just that: he will transform us.  When we read or memorize scripture, when we pray, when we practice solitude, when we confess, when we enter into worship, when we fast, if we do those things with the intent of allowing God to transform our inner selves, he will.  The practices don’t make us better, as they would with an instrument, but they allow God to make us better.

Richard Foster explained it this way in the preface to “Celebration of Discipline”:

We do indeed engage in practices— disciplines, if you will— but remember these practices earn us nothing in the economy of God. Nothing. Their only purpose is to place us before God. That is all. … God then steps into our actions and, over time and experience, produces in us the formation of heart and mind and soul for which we long.

Foster, Richard J.. Celebration of Discipline, Special Anniversary Edition (p. xvii). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

We have been talking as if the Gift of Love was given just last Christmas. The reality is it was given some two thousand years ago and is still ours today.  One of the powerful things about observing the liturgical or church year is it can help us remember the past.  Advent is a time of longing and waiting, waiting for the gift of the long-promised Christ.  Each Christmas we celebrate anew the Gift of Love God has given us.  Whether that was two thousand years ago or a few day ago, it is our gift. We should recognize it, celebrate it and diligently pursue the use of our Gift of Love.

Each of us can put that gift to better use that we have. Invite Holy Spirit to guide and correct you.  If we press in and cooperate, God can transform us so that we can pass along his Gift of Love to the world, a world that needs it now as much as it ever did.

This post is derived from a recent message I preached at Wonderful Mercy Church. You can listen to the entire message on-line.

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