For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints – and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us.
II Corinthians 8:3-5
This time of year I am usually thinking about an upcoming Christmas gift exchange. I have been going to Christmas gift exchanges for as long as I can remember, and the rule stays the same: “Everyone bring a gift costing no more than…”
I remember a school Christmas gift exchange as a boy when I went home thinking I’d been cheated. I didn’t think my third grade classmate had spent as much money as I had. Even then I was thinking like for like, quid pro quo, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Hardly the Christmas spirit! More a mercantile exchange where something of value is received for something of equal value given! But the marvelous Good News of Christmas is that God is about giving and not about exchanging. God gives to us freely with no thought of return. He gives to us because He delights in us. God gives and gives without seeking His own gain. Just look at His cross!
When we give for our own gain, we are wanting to enter into an exchange to get something of like value in return. A man might buy extravagant gifts for a woman hoping to ingratiate himself to her, getting something in exchange, and perhaps even to display her. A business might give Christmas gifts to customers hoping to receive business in return. When we give like this it’s not really giving; we are giving in hopes of exchanging. If we don’t receive a gift of like value, we may feel cheated, and may not give again.
Sometimes people give at Christmas to pay off a bad conscience or to feel good about themselves. Sometimes people give hoping to score points with God or to earn a name in the community for being givers. If we just want to get back when we give, we are not really givers. We are exchangers.
It strikes me in today’s Scripture passage that the Macedonian Christians are examples of the way God wants us to give. The apostle Paul notes how the Macedonians “gave themselves first” to the Lord, and then to the poor in Jerusalem. Theologian Lewis Smedes once pointed out, “A real gift always has a person attached to it.” (From an interview at the Chicago Sunday Evening Club) What so impressed the apostle Paul about the way impoverished Macedonians gave is that they gave themselves first, then their gifts.
I have heard that garbage collectors in parts of our city pick up some very valuable items that rich people have tossed to the curb. But the garbage collectors never call the valuable spoils gifts. The spoils come with no person attached. They are just more stuff provided without love.
Right now advertisers play for people’s attention, trying to inflate ideas about what we really need and what we really want for Christmas. But what we most want this Christmas, or any time of the year, is a person attached. We delight when people give themselves first. We delight in their time, their attention, prayers, talents, and listening ears.
The Grinch learned his Christmas lesson! Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Christmas comes without packages, boxes or bags! Christmas comes for us to receive God’s indescribable Gift, a person named Jesus.
- What are some ways that you might “give” in order to get?
- Paul notes how the Macedonian Christians “gave themselves first” to the Lord and to the poor in Jerusalem. What would it mean for you to “give yourself first” to God and to others this Advent?
- Lewis Smedes says, “A real gift always has a person attached to it.” What is one gift you might give this Christmas with yourself ‘attached’?