The Gift You Keep
Years ago, I was part of a Christmas Eve program at another church. As part of the program, a couple of teenagers dressed up as Mary and Joseph and held a baby who was only a few months old, while our youth minister sang a song called, “A Strange Way to Save the World.” The song is sung from the perspective of Joseph at that first Christmas, wondering why God chose to do things this way. The chorus goes like this:
“Why me? I’m just a simple man of trade. Why Him, with all the rulers in the world? Why here beside this stable filled with hay? Why her? She’s just an ordinary girl. Now, I’m not one to second-guess what angels have to say. But this is such a strange way to save the world.”
Our youth minister was an excellent singer, but he was a youth minister. The spiritual gift of sarcasm is a job requirement. In fact, I once said I was changing his title to “Minister of Ridicule,” and he considered it a compliment. He just wasn’t what you would consider a tender kind of guy. But as he sang this song, he started to choke up. Tears were forming in his eyes and his voice was getting all husky and broken. For a while, I thought he wasn’t going to be able to finish the song. I was astonished; I didn’t even know the guy had tear ducts! And then I suddenly realized: That baby those teenagers was holding wasn’t just any baby; it was his baby. This was his first-born child. Afterward, I talked to him about it, and he said, “I’ve sung that song before, but not since I became a dad myself. I guess I’ll never be able to sing it again.” He had grown up in church. He had heard John 3:16 all his life: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” But now, as he looked at his one and only son on that stage, he finally understood how much that cost God. He thought about how much he would hate to give up his baby boy; how he would fight anyone to the death who wanted to harm his son. On that day, he grasped in a way he never had before the amazing gift God gave to you and me in giving us His only Son.
We all know that Christmas is a time for giving and receiving gifts. Maybe the weirdest gift-giving tradition we have in our culture is the White Elephant gift exchange. Sometimes this happens at Christmas parties; we all bring stuff we don’t want, put it in Christmas wrapping, and exchange it. There’s a complicated game involved, where you have the option to trade your gift for something someone else opened. People get furious with each other, and isn’t that the point of Christmas parties? I’ve ended up with some truly fascinating stuff at these exchanges. One year, I came home with a “Redneck Briefcase,” which was actually a pair of wooden handles glued to a large pair of men’s white cotton underwear. You’ll be glad to know it has never been used. Another time, I came home with a DVD copy of the film, “The English Patient,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but to my knowledge, no human being has ever actually watched the film. I’ve heard that doctors prescribe it to insomnia patients, along with the sermons of certain Baptist preachers. We’re all familiar with that tradition, but did you ever wonder why we call it a “White Elephant” gift exchange?
Apparently, long ago the King of Siam had a strategy for destroying his enemies. He would give them a gift: a baby albino elephant. Albino elephants are extremely rare, as you can imagine, and in Siamese culture, this animal was considered sacred. So the recipient of the gift would feel obligated to take excellent care of this baby elephant. As it grew larger and larger, caring for the elephant would take up more and more of the man’s time, money and energy. Eventually, the man would be utterly destroyed because of this gift.
Ironically, the world tends to give white elephant gifts. Often, the worst thing that can possibly happen to us is to get exactly what we wanted. So a woman might get a job she’s aspired to for years. But in order to keep the job, she has to work long hours. She had always been active in ministry to the disadvantaged, but now she doesn’t have time. Not only do the poor miss out on her service, but she becomes much more selfish as time goes by. Or a man buys a house in an exclusive neighborhood, thinking he is truly providing for his family. But he is so in over his head with the mortgage, he never has any money to give to God’s work. He used to be generous, but now all his money goes to pay for the house. Meanwhile, his kids grow up learning that what matters most is money and status, which is the opposite of what he hoped to teach them. Or a family puts their child in a select baseball or softball or soccer league. But the tournaments are all out of town and on weekends, so they are rarely in church anymore. Soon, the entire family starts to drift spiritually. Jobs, houses, youth sports are all fine things. None of these are things invented by the Devil, but he can use them to warp us. My question is this: Do you have any white elephants in your life? Is there anything in your life that makes you say, “If not for that, I could be more consistent in worship, more active in ministry, more generous with my resources, more disciplined in drawing near to God daily?” I am not saying you have to get rid of your white elephant. But ask God, “What do I need to in order to re-orient my life around your plan?” He will show you the way.
Compare that to the gift God gave us in Jesus. He said in John 15, “I am the vine and you are the branches. If anyone abides in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Two things about that: First of all, He’s saying that He gives life. Just like a branch gets its life from the vine it’s attached to, we get our life from our union with Jesus. So the Devil uses gifts to steal life from us, to make us busy and bitter and stressed-out and tired. But Jesus is a gift that fills us with hope, joy, peace, and transformed character. The second thing to note about this is that Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” If right now you’re not satisfied with your life; if you feel like you’re lacking something important, you might be tempted to think it’s a better job, a nicer house, or something else related to status or possessions. And those things can indeed be blessings, but they’re not what you are lacking. If you need more LIFE in your life, the answer is to focus on being united with Jesus. Remove from your life whatever stops you from being fully committed to Him and dedicate yourself to drawing nearer to Him than you ever have before. That is the gift you will never want to return.