Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Gift Worth Having

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full. (John 10.10)
Curses in Disguise
Some gifts backfire on their givers, as a hysterical video that made the rounds about this time last year shows. A clueless husband gives his wife a Thigh-Master for their anniversary. She immediately escorts him to a doghouse with a trap door that drops him into an underground sweatshop full of similarly inept husbands. Their only means of escape is convincing a stern, all-female parole board they’ve figured out why their gifts backfired. Other gifts backfire on their receivers. Many “gifts that keep on giving”—Fruit-of-the-Month subscriptions, for instance, or adorable bunnies—sometimes fit this bill. The initial delight fades, leaving a routine dilemma about what to do with cartons of perishables or a child who won’t clean his rabbit’s cage. The gift worth having must be something we truly want. The gift that keeps on giving must be something we can’t do without. Otherwise, we may discover these gifts are curses in disguise.

Unnecessary presents typically wind up stowed out of sight and mind. We can’t bring ourselves to toss them away and risk offending those who give them to us. But as the years wear on and the gifts pile up, they start taking. They steal space we could put to better use. They kill time and energy by forcing us to deal with them. And the longer we hang onto them, the more burdensome they become, gradually destroying our appreciation for the kind gestures behind them. Over time, “How thoughtful of them to give us an automated card shuffler” turns into “What made them think we’d ever use this?” It’s funny how gifts we don’t need ultimately become clutter we detest.

Gift and Giver
In their gospels and letters, the Apostles continually present Jesus as God’s Gift to humankind. This concept originates in Isaiah 9.6: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” And Jesus ratifies it several times, most famously in John 3.16 (a verse we’ll delve into next time): “God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son.” Yet while the concept holds firm, its construct proves surprisingly elastic. John and Paul in particular portray Jesus as a literal—i.e., physical—Gift, as well as the channel through which God’s grace and life are given. In 1 John 5.11, we read, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son,” while Paul contrasts Adam and Jesus in Romans 5.15 by saying, “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”

The dozens of variations on this idea coalesce into a unified theme: Jesus comes as Gift and Giver. He’s born specifically to provide the perfect Offering—a Gift of Love—for our redemption. “This is love,” 1 John 4.10 tells us, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” But in the span between His first breath in the manger and His last gasp on the cross, He teaches us to accept gifts God wants us to receive. No verse better summarizes the extent of what we can receive by and through Him than John 10.10: “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus epitomizes the Gift worth having and the Gift that keeps on giving. We need Him and the full life He gives.

Opening Our Lives
With Advent cresting this weekend and Christmas approaching, we have a moment to remember embracing the Gift of Christ is nothing short of opening our lives to all of God’s gifts: love, grace, mercy, acceptance, strength, purpose, joy, healing, hope, confidence, peace, creativity, holiness, and innumerable other treasures. They’re not ours for the asking; God gives them to us without reservation. This has always been so, even before God sends Jesus to offer them in Person. Psalm 84.11 says, “The LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” And get this: even blamelessness is a gift. Paul writes, “Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3.22) No matter how much righteousness we scramble together, we’ll never accumulate enough to merit God’s gifts. Titus 3.5 stresses, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” So great is God’s love, He bestows His righteousness on us for no other reason than entitling us to every other gift He wants us to have.

The tiny Baby in a cow-crib is so much more than a Sacrifice destined for the altar. He’s Life—new life, eternal life, and full life. He’s the Gift worth having, the Gift that keeps on giving. Thus, Christmas transcends celebrating Christ’s birth; it’s the celebration of our lives. We experience it at its fullest by enlarging our worship to include gratefully accepting all He came to give. When Jesus arrived, everything we’ll ever want or need came with Him. If anything’s absent from our lives, it’s not because God decides we can’t have it. It’s because we haven't yet opened our lives to receive everything He gives.

Jesus came into the world as Gift and Giver, which transforms Christmas from a celebration of His birth into the celebration of the fullness of life we experience by receiving all of God's gifts.

(Next: Defying Nature)


Fran said...

Giver and Gift... I love that, I truly do.

I love the Incarnation.

Anonymous said...

Oh Tim, as usual, you have said some powerful things. I too love the concept of giver and gift, for you are so very right here.

I am always saddened that all of us, me as well, get so caught up in the preparation for this holiday season that we don't take the time to grasp and be transformed by the sheer wonder of what is offered us as followers of the Christ. Indeed the entire world is offered us, yet we continue, unfortunately in our busy stressful ways, unaware that peace is so close at hand. Blessings to you for another "knock it out the park" homerun! You are in your own way both giver and gift. I am blessed to know you.

kkryno said...

The best gift; Love!

Anders Branderud said...

You wrote: “Paul writes, “Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3.22) No matter how much righteousness we scramble together, we’ll never accumulate enough to merit God’s gifts. ”

I want to comment on foregiveness.. How to live in order to enable the Creator in His loving kindness to provide His foregivness is outlined in Tan’’kh ( the Jewish Bible) ; and was also taught by the first century Ribi Yehoshua ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) from Nazareth.

Tan’’kh – for example Yekhëzqeil (Hezekiel) 18 – promises foregivness to those who do their sincerest to keep Torah. The Creator cannot lie and He does not change (Malakhi 3:6)! According to Tehilim (“Psalms”) 103 the Creator gives his foregivness to those whom do their sincerest to keep His berit (“covenant”; the pre-conditions to be included in the berit is according to the Jewish Bible to do ones sincerest to keep the Creators’ mitzwot (commandments) in Torah).

You will find Ribi Yehoshuas teachings here in the above Netzarim-page.

All the best, Anders Branderud

Tim said...

Fran, Sherry, and Vikki--

As I count all three of you as beloved sisters (each in your own way, of course), I trust you won't be offended if I answer you together, especially since we're all rejoicing in the same thing.

Your comments reminded me how often Jesus goes out of His way to remind us He is Gift and Giver. I am the Door. I am the Bread of Life. I am the Water of Life. I am the Good Shepherd. Etc. The poetry many of us (justifiably) find in the Christmas message of the Babe born to die often skims past why the Babe is born to live among us.

He came to provide more than forgiveness of sins; through Him we gain access to the benefits of total reconciliation with our Creator. That's why He says things like, "I have told you these things that you might have peace," or, "that your joy may be full," or "life to the full." As my former pastor in LA always reminded us, limiting Christ's work to sacrificing Himself for our redemption finds us living beneath our inheritance. And when we look at Christmas as our opportunity to receive life to the full, we venerate the renewal of life as well as its restoration.

I too love the Incarnation and, as a matter of fact, am working away at capturing some of its richness in the next post on the Virgin Birth. So stay tuned...

Oh so many blessings and wishes for a full, bountiful holiday to each of you!

With much love,

Tim said...

Andres, welcome to Straight-Friendly! It's a joy to meet you and draw from the wealth of your comment here.

I must admit your rabbinical expertise intimidates me, as I'm hardly as conversant with the text as you obviously are. Thus, I ask your forgiveness if I'm misreading your comment.

As I understand it, you're suggesting the righteousness Paul writes of is a gift made possible through God's forgiveness. I can't agree with you more. Which is why Paul ties our righteousness to faith in Christ's sacrifice. That's also why the Hebrews writer insists, "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." (Hebrews 9.22)

At the same time, Christ and the Apostles' teaching convince me that reading of the Torah must be tempered with the understanding it's now superseded by a New Order ushered in by Christ's death and resurrection.

In Matthew 5.17, Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Release from the confines of--and impossibility of compliance with--Mosaic Law is clearly what He means in Matthew 11:29-30: "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." And finally, deliverance from the sinful mindset born of legalistic doctrine is what drives the verse in today's post--"life to the full."

Paul, the former Pharisee, passionately challenges us to shake the burden of the law, equating it with death: "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 15.56-57) "Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death." (Romans 8.2) Paul's determination to release us from legalism and guilt, focusing our attention on faith in Christ, rises repeatedly, e.g., Romans 6.14: "For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace."

Christ's fulfillment of law is fundamental to everything we believe. Retreat into legalism was something the Apostles closely guarded against, as religious compliance rather than faith in God's grace completely defied the doctrines of Jesus (q.v. the Apostles' opposition to requiring circumcision for Gentile converts).

Hebrews 10 goes so far as to cite prophecy of a "new covenant:" "This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts and in their minds will I write them; and their sins and iniquities I will remember no more." (v16-17) The writer then emphasizes this is "a new and living way" (v20), once again pairing faith in Christ with life.
(continued below)

Tim said...

(continuing from above...)

Because God is immutable, as Malachi says, His innate creativity raises expectations He will--and does--do new things. Twice in Isaiah, He explicitly declares He will and is doing new things (42.9; 43.19), asking in the second reference, "Do you not perceive it?" These and other Old Testament statements enable Jesus, Paul, the Hebrews writer, and others to declare a new covenant based on belief not behavior.

As I'm sure you're aware, Andres, belief in a new covenant based on Christ's sacrifice is essential to all Christians, but it's vital for non-heterosexual and women believers, because it liberates them from discriminatory edicts and taboos set forth in the Torah. Indeed, it entirely negates the idea forgiveness is conditional on behavior; under the new covenant it comes by belief in Jesus as God's one and only Son. (John 3.16) That's the good news of Christmas and the new covenant in a nutshell.

I trust you won't misread this response as argumentative or defensive. And it's entirely possible that I'm totally off base, having not understood the spirit and intent of your comment. If so, I beg your pardon and understanding. Please put it to my inferior learning and/or inability to ascertain the nuances in what you say.

I sense it comes from a heart of compassion and acceptance, which is why I published it and responded as I have. A brief scan of your blog suggests we most likely differ on the Torah's role in Christian life. Yet we most certainly agree with Christ that fulfillment and abolition of the law are entirely different things. Therefore, I read your comment as friendly, rather than hostile, to GLBT believers. And I believe you would be most remorseful if anyone here misread it to suggest God's forgiveness is predicated on compliance to Levitical statutes, etc. If my assumptions are correct, then I trust you understand why I answered you at length in order to reaffirm the underlying premise in what you say.

If not, however, I invite you to continue to join us here and comment with the understanding Straight-Friendly is first and foremost a haven of tolerance and hope. We uphold these values in service to God, not any political or social agenda. And more than that, we strive to exemplify His nature in our equal regard for everyone as His hand-crafted reflection, regardless of race, gender, or orientation. We are all His people, the sheep of His pasture, as the Psalmist says.

In this spirit, I truly thank you for your thoughts, as they provide an excellent (and timely) reminder that God's promise to forgive came to life in Bethlehem's manger. We accept this gift as it was given, without condition or restraint to all who receive it by faith.

Have a joyous and blessed holiday.