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What Did You Get for Christmas?

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by Linda Rex

I was mulling over the Christmas tradition of gift giving and a question came to my mind as to the difference between getting a gift and receiving a gift. Are these two acts the same? Are these expressions synonymous?

It seems that the whole Santa tradition here in America has become more and more a commercial enterprise rather than the fairy tale it started out as. When I hear people talk about Christmas for their kids I hear a lot of anxiety about being able to get the presents their children want and whether or not they will be in hock for months on end because of what they spent on those presents. Some people who are not financially savvy will spend their rent money or bill money on presents for their kids just because they want them to have Christmas (Nevermind that their electricity is turned off for the next three months of winter!).

As a child sits on the mall Santa’s knees the jolly fellow in red and white will ask him or her what the child wants for Christmas. If the child is not too shy, he will receive a litany of hopeful expectations of presents. Whether or not the child will receive those presents, unfortunately (Santa unbeliever that I am) will depend pretty much on the parents’ budget and the thoughtfulness of grandparents and others. The child really doesn’t have a whole lot of control over what is going to show up in his stocking or under the Christmas tree.

Sometimes I think the whole process would be a lot healthier and happier if children and adults alike not only understood the nativity and the gift of the Christ child, but also understood that there is a difference between getting what we want and receiving what is given.

In getting what we want, we are an essential part of the process. We get to decide what we want. We get to decide what’s important to us and what matters most to us. We get to make a list of all the things we think are essential to our life and happiness.

In receiving, we really are not a part of the process at all except in that we reach out and receive what is given. We don’t really have a say in what we receive—we just receive it and make it ours. It becomes essential to us when we receive it in gratitude and put it to use.

In M. Craig Barnes book “Sacred Thirst”, the author tells about the Asian custom of gift giving and receiving that is always done with two hands. He explains that there is a moment in this act of giving when both the giver and the receiver share the gift. He draws upon this image as he reminds us of “the two hands of God”, the incarnate Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. In giving us Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God gives us himself. All we are asked to do is to receive with open hands the gift that was and is given.

To receive God through Jesus and in the Spirit means that we need to come with empty hands. We need to shred our Christmas wish list of expectations and receive what God has given with humble thankfulness for God’s grace and generosity. We need to give up our insistence that what’s in the stocking and under the tree is what we think we need to have for our life and happiness. We need to stop eating from the tree of good and evil and start eating from the tree of life.

This is another reason it is a good idea to teach children the story of the coming of God in human flesh in the person of baby Jesus. Santa can also be a fun story to tell, but personally I chose instead to tell the story of Kris Kringle who was generous in heart and gave to the poor children who had nothing and were grateful to receive whatever he gave.

This is a picture of you and me, the spiritually poor and needy, longing to have the deep needs of our heart and soul, as well as our body, fulfilled. We come to God with open hands and hungry souls and he generously gives us all we need for life and godliness.

It also teaches us to reach out to others with all God has given us and to freely fill their empty hands with his love and grace, and whatever other needs we may see. When we toss aside all our preconceptions of what God is doing and will do, and receive full what he is offering—himself in Christ through the Spirit in intimate relationship, moment by moment—we will never be the same. Because we will be living out Christmas all year round.

God has given us himself in Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and continues even now to pour himself out to us in the Holy Spirit. We can live as though none of this is true and continue to work to get the things we want and think we need all on our own—trying to fill the thirst of our soul in our own way. Or we can let go of all our expectations and receive the gift God has given—new life in Christ through the Spirit.

May your New Year be full of God’s love, truth and grace!

Thank you, Father, for the beautiful and generous gift you have given us of yourself in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Grant us the grace to let go of all the expectations and desires that consume our attention and to receive with open, empty hands your perfect gift. Throughout this new year and into the future, pour into us your new life, hope, joy, and peace. You are all we need. Amen.

“After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11 NASB

The Naughty and Nice List

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by Linda Rex

I’m always amused by the Christmas song that tells us that Santa has a naughty and nice list, and that we’d better not be naughty if we want something other than coal for Christmas. And it’s interesting how many Christmas movies show Santa checking out the list, and since he doesn’t want to give anyone coal, he is extremely gracious and makes excuses for the naughty kids, giving them presents instead.

I was speaking to a dear friend this morning about our human proclivity to not get things right, especially when it comes to how we treat other people. We find ourselves being insensitive, unforgiving, and irritable even when we want more than anything to be loving, warm and gracious. We want to be nice, but we end up being naughty instead. And so we go around in a funk because we can’t get it right.

I know it’s been said before, but we have to quit treating God like he’s a Santa Claus with a naughty and nice list. The whole point of Christmas is that he doesn’t have one. Instead going by the naughty and nice list, he gave us the gift of his Son. This little baby born on that Bethlehem night was a real person, who in the Spirit lived that perfect human life that we all struggle to live. Immanuel. God with us. God in human flesh, born to be a king, but living as one of us.

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, talks about what Christ did for us. It’s described by theologians as the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Christ in our place. Jesus for us, in us, with us.

When he was born, we were reborn. The life he lived, he lived for us, in our place. When he was baptized, we went down into the water with him, and came out, receiving the Spirit as he did. As he wandered in the wilderness, battling the evil one, we were right there with him. When he died, we died, and we rose again in him. We ascended with him and are seated in heavenly places in him.

And most significantly, even now, he stands in our place in the Father’s presence in the Spirit, interceding in every situation. We are the fallen Adam—the ones who can’t get it right. He is the second Adam—who did everything we should have done and didn’t and couldn’t do—and offers us his perfected humanity in our place.

We have adopted the mentality that in some way we are the ones who have to work out our badness and goodness. We are the ones who have to get our relationships right and handle every situation perfectly. I don’t know how well you are doing at that, but personally, I am a flop. I can’t and don’t get things right like I should.

But that’s not a bad thing. Actually that is the very thing that God uses to bind us to himself in Jesus. It is our weaknesses, our failures, and our faults that Jesus comes into the midst of by the Spirit and uses to draw us to himself. We turn away from God in guilt and shame, but God calls us to himself and offers us grace and a new life in his Son. He embraces us in our naughtiness and declares us nice instead.

This is unfathomable. How and why can he do this? Because God knows that it is his goodness and his kindness that brings us to repentance. In the offering of forgiveness, free unmerited pardon, we are shown that we have been wrong and need forgiveness. In receiving that forgiveness, we are in the same moment having to admit that we need to turn our back on the old Adam, to reject the naughtiness that plagues us and holds us captive.

It is an incredible exchange God is offering us. We hand him all that we are as human beings, both our naughtiness and niceness (since even our niceness is faulty) and he gives us Jesus and his perfected humanity instead. We participate in Jesus’ perfect life—he stands in the presence of God in our place.

What we do now is to live moment by moment in that relationship. We look to Christ instead to ourselves for the answers. We listen to, trust in and obey the voice of the Holy Spirit as he speaks to us and guides us throughout our day. We surrender to God and allow Christ to live in us the life he has created us to live. This does not make us any less ourselves, but rather we become more fully the person we were created to be.

And when we hear the jingle of the naughty and nice list come up, telling us that we’re going to get coals in our stockings again this year, we can laugh. Because we know that what we have coming to us are all God’s heavenly blessings in Christ Jesus—something we could never earn, but God has said already belong to us. And that’s what Christmas is all about.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving us the most perfect gift of all, your precious Son Jesus and the gift of your Spirit through him. Thank you, Jesus, for standing in our place and interceding for us moment by moment as we struggle through our niceness and naughtiness. We trust you to finish what you have begun so that one day we can fully experience all the wonderful things you have in mind for us. May we experience them even now and throughout this New Year. In Jesus name, amen.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Eph. 1:3–6 NASB