The Christmas Gift

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Seneca and the Tossing Game

One of my happiest childhood memories of Christmas is getting together at my grandparents’ house with extended family. We’d do a secret Santa gift exchange, unwrap our gifts, and be left with a mound of crumpled up wrapping paper. We’d then ball it all up and throw it around the room.

When you play this game, you notice several things. So, we’re going to play it now. Objective: toss the gift wrapping ball down the aisles to see which side wins. Condition: everyone has to touch it and it must not touch the ground (and you’re not allowed to leave your seat).

Observations

Throwing the gift-wrap ball creates a response (so Seneca).[1] The toss creates a chain reaction. The toss reinforces the relationship as you meet the needs of the other person. We see how gift-giving prompts a reaction.

Notice how people got ready, put their phones down, stopped talking, focused, looked one another in the eye, etc. You got ready for good works. You sized up the person you were going to throw it to. Notice how you adjusted your throw according to the person to whom you were throwing it. You didn’t want to throw it too hard or too soft. You had to estimate their ability and toss accordingly.

It was in your team’s best interest to toss appropriately. But notice how when you put the other person first what’s self-serving isn’t merely self-serving or self-destructive. Putting others first, even if it is in your best interest, is how society flourishes when done according to the rules of the game. So, too, when life is lived God’s way.[2]

In the same way, the gift of God appeared on the first Christmas. And according to Paul in his letter to Titus that Christ-gift ought to create in us a chain reaction. That gift calls us to be wise, upright, self-controlled (you don’t just chuck the wrapping paper as hard as you can), ready for good works, and passionate for the things of God.

Titus

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to Titus, we are told that “the grace of God has appeared” (2:11). Earlier in the letter, we learn that Paul left Titus on the island of Crete (1:5), after visiting to provide leadership and revive a struggling church. False teachers were upsetting the faith of some by teaching strange things. These teachers fit the stereotype of people from Crete at the time being liars, untamed animals,[3] and idle guzzlers (or gluttons).[4]

Paul gave Titus to the people of Crete and later writes him a letter. In his letter, he reminds Titus that God gave his son Jesus as a gift which he calls “the grace of God.” This grace of God in the form of the Godman Jesus appeared in time and space. In history, he was born as a baby, was raised by earthly parents, and performed miracles, signs, wonders, until ultimately being crucified and buried as a common criminal. On the third day, he would be raised to new life. This resurrected Godman Jesus appeared and then disappeared ascending into heaven. He left a helper—his Holy Spirit—whom “he [has] poured out on us richly” (3:6) to first make us right with God and secondly to make us those who inherit life with him forever (3:7).

In light of this newness, this reconfiguration, Paul tells Timothy that those who have come to believe in God should be careful to devote ourselves to good works (3:8). But why be changed by this gift of the grace of God, Jesus? Because not only are these things true, but they are beautiful and beneficial to everyone (3:8).

God plays an active role in preparing us for good works by purifying, training, and rebooting us. Left to our own devices we will be naughty and not nice, looking out for our own interests rather than those of others. But the gift of God changes all that. He rescues us from the worst version of ourselves and calls us into the best version of ourselves. He created us to be in constant, two-way relationship with him. His Christ-gift makes this possible and prompts a response in us.

A Giveaway

I have a gift I’d like to give away, not as a prize or as an award but just because. Here I have generated 25 random dates and put them into my stocking. Whosoever’s birthdate is closest is going to win this chocolate. You didn’t do anything to deserve it. You didn’t choose to be born or when you were born. But you’re here today and can hear my voice and that’s enough. Let’s go…

Our Response

The heart of the prayer for today (the collect) is a humble but ambitious request:

“Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit.”

This prayer is first recognition of our need for renewal, and secondly, dependence on God for that new birth. Our fitting response to God sending his only Son to be born in our own likeness is that we should be born again, from above, in his own likeness.

As Paul writes to Titus, the appearance of God’s grace in the form of his Son is the grounds for a reconfiguration of daily life. This Christ-gift radically reconfigures reality. In Paul’s day, it was the appearance of this grace that gave birth to a radical new community of believers who crossed social boundaries—the church. Rather than being bound together with people of similar class, status, and wealth, this community is bound together around the Christ-gift. The appearance of this grace changes everything, changes our reality through new relationships with God, others, and ourselves. As one writer has put it, the gift of Christ transforms those who receive it, because ultimately it is the gift not of a thing but of a person.[5]

This has for effect not only whom we hang out with at church but how we act at home. Today of all days most clearly demonstrates the vital social function of gift-giving and how giving and receiving ties people together, reinforcing relationships.

Have you received any surprise gifts this year, perhaps from someone from whom you weren’t expecting it? What sort of reaction did that gift create in you? Did it move you to reciprocate, to respond in kind and offer a gift in return? Even if no gift was returned, perhaps you sense that your relationship with that person has changed as a result of that gift.

The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis

An amusing example of responding to an unexpected gift comes from the The Big Bang Theory.

[In one episode, the main character, a scientist named] Sheldon discovers that Penny has gotten him a Christmas present. Angered, he reminds Penny that the “foundation of gift giving is reciprocity” and that she hasn’t given him a gift, she’s given him “an obligation.” He says that he now has to go out and purchase for her “a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship” as that represented by the gift she’s given him.

His solution is to purchase three gift baskets (of various sizes) of bath products. His plan is to see what her gift to him is, excuse himself from the room, give her the appropriate gift basket, and return the other two baskets to the store. What happens, though, is that Penny has gotten Sheldon a napkin that [his favorite actor] Leonard Nimoy [Spock in Star Trek] has used and autographed. Sheldon notes that he now not only has Nimoy’s signature, he has his DNA.

After excusing himself, Sheldon returns with all three gift baskets, barely able to carry the weight. “I know, I know,” he wails. “It’s not enough!”[6]

After handing over all the gift baskets, Sheldon does the only thing that he thinks could possibly show his excitement and appreciation for this gift. He gives Penny a rare “Sheldon” hug.[7]

In Christ, God offers you immeasurably more than you can imagine or appreciate. He offers you new life. He offers you himself. To know God and to be known by him is the surest path to human flourishing.

Closing Exhortation

How will you respond to the unmerited, lavish grace of God in the Christ-gift this morning? What effect will the grace of God now appearing have on your daily life? Pray today’s collect prayer: “Lord, renew me today.” Then watch for how he will answer your prayer through the inner work of his Holy Spirit. He promises in fact to enable you to follow his advice like we hear Paul giving Titus in today’s reading. God is training us for a new way of living, teaching us:

  • To say no to living as if he doesn’t exist.
  • To turn our backs on destructive and empty things.
  • To instead be sensible, self-controlled, and thirst to live a life pleasing to God.

If his Holy Spirit brings this about in us—especially at this chaotic and stressful time of year—well, that will be a real Christmas miracle.

References

  1. David E. Briones, “Strings Attached: Paul and Seneca on the Modern Myth of the Pure Gift,” in Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context, ed. Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019), 106–21.
  2. Briones, “Strings Attached: Paul and Seneca on the Modern Myth of the Pure Gift.”
  3. David W. Pao, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, vol. 1 of Brill Exegetical Commentary Series (Leiden: Brill, 2023), 445.
  4. John Goldingay and Tom Wright, The Bible for Everyone: A New Translation (London: SPCK, 2018).
  5. John Barclay, “Santa Claus and How Not to Give Gifts,” Seen & Unseen, 19 December 2023, https://www.seenandunseen.com/santa-claus-and-how-not-give-gifts.
  6. Tullian Tchividjian, It Is Finished: 365 Days of Good News (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015), §August 11 (Matthew 13:45–46).
  7. WIKIPEDIA, s.v. “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis.”

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