A few weeks ago my family and I stayed overnight with some friends out of town. As soon as we had gone into their home and set our bags down, our hostess brought out some gifts she had gotten for our daughter: a coloring book, some markers, and a stuffed animal. There was no occasion for these gifts; it was not our daughter’s birthday or another holiday. Our hostess had gotten these gifts for our daughter simply because she wanted to. Watching these gifts be given by our hostess and received by our daughter at the very beginning of our visit made a big impression on me, and set the tone for the time we would spend with them.
Many people suppose that when God meets us his first word to us must be something like “Stop it!” or “Do better!” We imagine that God has had it up to here with our messes, and that if we are to stay in his home, if he is to do anything for us, then we must agree and adapt to his terms and conditions. First, we suppose, we must earn God’s favor by our obedience.
But this is not the God I read about in the Bible. In the Bible, I read of a God who creates a good world and gives our lives to us in that world as a gift. I read of a God who rescues a helpless people out of slavery and gives them a place to call home as a gift. I read of a God who shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners he sent his Son to die for us as a gift (Rom. 5:8). God has instructions and commands, he wants to make us holy as he is holy, but first—and always first—he gives us a gift.
The gift of gifts that God gives is himself: his Son “who, though he was in the form of God . . . emptied himself . . . taking the form of a servant, [and] being born in the likeness of men . . . humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:6-8), and his Holy Spirit, the Helper, by whom God makes his home in us (John 14:15-24). Yes, we must eventually learn to give ourselves back to God and to give ourselves to others, but our giving will be impossible unless we first receive what God has given.
This week, as we reflect on the birth of Christ, our first duty as believers is to receive the gift of God. That means that before we do and give and serve and act for God and for others we must receive God from God. Until we do this (and learn to do this over and over again) we are doomed to frustration, burnout, and competition in our attempts to obey. We must remember that God’s first word to us was not a commandment or an ultimatum, but was his Word that became flesh, dwelt among us, and died for us (John 1:1-5, 14). Thank God that first, before he had given us his commandments and before we had become holy as he is holy, God gave us the gift of himself. May that gift make a deep and lasting impression on us, and may it set the tone for all that follows in our lives.