Question: Isn’t making out a Christmas list kind of crass? Shouldn’t we be more concerned to give than to get at Christmastime?
Answer: I agree that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” But I also quite like to receive, don’t you? And other people who love me want to know what to get me, so I help them by composing a Christmas list. Plus it’s fun to finally just put right down there what I really, really want.
I once heard my colleague, Cambridge-trained professor of Old Testament Iain Provan, lecture on the story of Jacob. That’s not a typical Advent story, of course, but it’s interesting–which is to say, startlingly confrontational–to consider it in this context.
Dr. Provan noted that when Jacob rests one night while running from his vengeful brother Esau, God reiterates the promise he once gave to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham during Jacob’s famous dream of a ladder reaching to heaven: “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (Genesis 28).
But when Jacob responds to God’s extravagant promise, he mentions nothing about gaining an entire land, or having numberless offspring, or being a blessing to the whole world. He says nothing at all on that stupendous scale.
Here’s what he says instead: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God.”
Provan points out the shocking disjunction between what Jacob wants and what God offers. And as I listened to this story, I was suddenly struck by the embarrassing disjunction between my own paltry desires and God’s great promises.
I confess that I want the usual items on the modern middle-class list: economic security, a spacious home, a nice car, a pleasant vacation each year, career success, and a few high-quality toys. Oh, yes: and good health, and peaceful sleep, and a happy family.
But God offers the following instead: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).
Well, now, I think, that’s very kind of God to offer me those pleasant things. But how about a Pioneer Elite 60-inch HDTV with a McIntosh home theatre surround sound audio system? That would be cool!
And God promises to transform me into the very image of his Son (Rom. 8:29).
Well, I’m happy to say thank-you to God for this lovely prospect. But then I quickly reply, When will I be able to trade in my banged-up minivan for the Maserati or Aston Martin I’d much, much prefer?
And God tells me that he has prepared a place for me in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21).
Well, I’m willing to sing a little song of praise to God about all that, because it does sound nice . . . and then I wonder when I can finally move into that half-timber-plus-fieldstone waterfront mansion I’ve always thought would be such a good home base from which I could serve the Lord so much better. You know: the one with the private airstrip and Gulfstream.
And God gently asks if I am completely insane, utterly lacking in perspective, preferring the relatively trivial and ephemeral to the absolutely wonderful and eternal.
This time, I stop and think. And I shamefacedly acknowledge in a murmur that my aspirations are pathetically low. And I realize that my appreciation for what really counts is preposterously small. I am, it is evident, clearly deranged.
What I want so badly to get is just so much less than what God wants to give.
It’s time to make a new, different, better Christmas list, one that beautifully combines getting and giving. You know, the kind of list God would compose for us….