Christianity 201

February 8, 2021

God’s Gift: At First Impractical, In Balance, What We Needed

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:28 pm
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NIV.Mark.14.3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. [Read the whole narrative here.]

HCSB.Mark.12.1 [Jesus:] “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug out a pit for a winepress, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenant farmers and went away. At harvest time he sent a slave to the farmers to collect some of the fruit of the vineyard from the farmers. But they took him, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent another slave to them, and they hit him on the head and treated him shamefully. Then he sent another, and they killed that one. He also sent many others; they beat some and they killed some…” [Read the whole parable here.]

What follows has been in my files for a long time. It’s the manuscript for a sermon given in a United Church in Morrisburg, Ontario on the day before Christmas, 1989. The pastor was Donald C. Smith. Beyond that, I don’t have much information. He began with a look at the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song and how of the 12 gifts, only 3 were remotely practical. Then he looked at The Gift of the Maji, by O’Henry and how in that story what started out as practical gift was rendered impractical by the sacrifice of the other. Then he continued…

You will remember that there was a day when Jesus was a guest in the home of a Pharisee and while he was eating his meal a woman of bad reputation came and brought an alabaster flask of very precious perfume; she broke it open and anointed his feet with her tears and with the perfume. There were three distinct reactions to what happened. Some of his critics refused any contact with her. A disciple, we are told, immediately pointed out that the perfume was extremely costly and should not have been wasted in this way; it should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus accepted both the woman and the gift because he realized that this was a beautiful act that does not have a price.

You may remember that Jesus spoke about an absentee landlord who had rented out his vineyard and who at harvest time sent servants to collect his share of the enterprise. One by one the servants were ill treated; some were spurned, some were beaten but all were sent away empty handed. Finally he decided to send his son with the expectation that they would have respect for him. On the contrary, they decided to kill the son. The hearers of the parable were angry and upset because they knew exactly what Jesus was saying.

The nation Israel had been given God’s good earth to tend and he had sent his messengers, the prophets, to collect his due, their love and their worship, but all had been badly treated. Finally he decided to send his son and they were on the verge of killing him. It was one of those few times that Jesus laid claim to sonship. When we celebrate Christmas we celebrate God’s rather impractical gift, but we understand that by Jesus’ coming into the world he was showing his unsearchable love.

In so many ways God’s gift was totally impractical and was not what most people were asking for. Most of the peoples of the world were not expecting anything from God because they did not know about him. The one nation that was expecting a gift was expecting a messenger with a totally different agenda from the one Jesus had. Some wanted a messiah riding on the clouds of the heavens throwing around heavenly thunderbolts to get instant obedience to God’s commands. Others wanted a military ruler to rally the troops and deal with the Roman overlords and all other conquerors. They wanted a second David to make the borders strong and extend them.

Instead God sent a baby. What possible use could that be? And he sent the baby to Bethlehem, a little town where only a few shepherds shopped. And he sent an angel choir to announce the birth to some shepherds, probably not even the owners of the sheep, probably hired men without seniority, doing the night shift. I can imagine that when God told the angels to go and sing at Bethlehem they must have thought it strange. Shouldn’t they go to Rome or Alexandria or Athens but not to Bethlehem. Surely they should go to kings or governors, not shepherds. But the baby was to grow into a man and what a man! His birth was to be a sign of the extravagant love of God.

Occasionally I find it good to say what I am not saying. I am not saying that an impractical gift is always better than a practical one. I am not saying that the gift must be more than one can afford. I am saying that the gift must be an expression of love and a demonstration that one cares about the person receiving it. God loved and gave his own son, in effect a bit of himself, because he loves his people.

I hasten to add that a great deal of gift giving falls short of this standard. Some is self serving. It is giving in order to get another person obligated to us so that some day the debt can be called and some demand can be made on the other person. A lot of criticism has been leveled at the affluent nations for giving their surpluses of food and their technical expertise to the developing nations in the third world in such a way that they will gain as much or more than the recipient gets.

Paul Tournier tells in his little book The Meaning of Gifts of a child who was promised a little money if she did a certain task but when she received it she was told she must donate it to a certain good cause which her parents had chosen. It was meant to be a learning experience whereby the child would come to learn the joy of giving, but what she learned was that people can be manipulative in their gift giving. Every family where the parents have gone through the sadness of breaking up knows something about the temptation to use gifts as a way of getting the children on the side of one the parents. The child usually learns that the gift is not an expression of love but that it is rather part of the tug of war and feels not the love that is expected but a lack of respect for the one who is being self serving.

Sometimes gifts can greatly complicate relationships, they can be divisive as well as being the means of cementing warm relationships. As a prospective grandparent, I suspect grandparents need to have a well defined statement of family policy because it is possible for them to be much too lavish in their giving. The parents may have decided that it is not safe for a small child to have a  bicycle until legs have grown long enough to reach the pedals with ease, but a grandparent can’t wait to see the child glowing with joy on finding such a gift under the tree. The parents may feel that too much at any one time can breed a materialism that does not fit with the family values but the grandparents may have their own needs to appear as lavish givers and may be more interested in meeting those needs.

I am sure gifts have even been used to express hostility as well as love. An article of clothing can be chosen with the expectation that someone with poor taste in dress will enjoy a gift that the giver feels is in good taste and dress more acceptably in the future. On such occasions the gift is given to change the person, not to make him feel loved and accepted.

What I have been trying to say is that there are faulty human ways to give and there is a divine way to give. The divine way means that the gift is an expression of love, it is a way of communicating love, and it is a way of making a deeper relationship than could otherwise exist. After all there are times when words fail. Even God does not rely on verbal communication. We cannot find a different way each day to say to the ones we cherish that we love them, so we use the non-verbal communication of gifts. God started it, we respond to his love by loving one another. His gift was in many ways extravagant and impractical and surprising, but the important thing about it was that he was self giving. God was giving his son; as the New Testament says, God was in Christ.

Receive God’s gift and respond with love to others.