As we fast approach The Day, I wonder what is the greatest Christmas gift you have ever received? As a child I recall things like Scalextric and a bike.... nowadays my gifts are predictable (best summed up in the acronym, BSM, Books, Socks and Malt!), but nonetheless welcome. Sometimes it is the smallest things that are the most appreciated, because they meet our needs and they show the thoughtfulness of the giver. Our church did a shoebox appeal this year to help our own children realise that Christmas really is about giving. To see the joy on these children's face as they get a hat, a toothbrush or gloves is a great reminder of what giving is meant to be about.
Four years ago I received a great gift – the gift of life – after a serious illness in which I was not expected to survive, I got home for Christmas.
This year I was not expecting much but there was one thing I really did want – to be able to book tickets to go to Australia to see my daughter, who is expecting our first grandchild. It seemed totally impossible given the current state of our finances and the fact that following some excellent instruction by Christians Against Poverty, we decided to get rid of all our credit cards. However through a series of events and the incredible kindness and generosity of some of the Lord's people, I am heading down this afternoon to book the trip.
The English Puritan John Flavel, whose writings have been honey and manna for my soul in this past year, points out that "Most men that have a stock of creature-comforts in their hands, look upon all as coming in an ordinary, natural course, and see very little of God in their mercies". If you are sitting with thousands in the bank, then buying or even receiving an expensive present does not really mean all that much. If the only concern you have about going to Australia is whether you will travel business or first class then booking your ticket is not that special an event. But as Flavel says "But now, when a man sees his mercies come in by the special and assiduous care of God for him, there is a double sweetness in those mercies; the natural sweetness which comes from the creature itself, every one, even the beasts, can taste that as well as thee; but besides that, there is a spiritual sweetness, far exceeding the former, which none but a believer tastes; and much of that comes from the manner in which he receives it, because it comes (be it never so coarse or little) as a covenant mercy to him."
I can testify to that. God willing, when we go to Australia, economy class, because of the way it came, it will taste sweeter than if we were going first class, paid out of our own wealth! In that sense the Lord's people always go first class (though they are in steerage!) and eat the finest food, though it be just plain bread. As Luther says: "Let us be content with coarse fare here, have we not the bread that came down from heaven? Do we not feed with angels?"
But there is more. Much more. As Christians we can celebrate Christmas knowing that "God richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment" (1 Timothy 6:17) and we can freely share and be generous because of the ultimate gift we have ourselves received. "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32)
Earlier this year Mark Zuckerberg announced he was 'giving' 99 per cent of his Facebook shares into a private company that he will use to improve/save the world. This gift was not quite as it was announced. Zuckerberg will retain control of Facebook, and of his new private company and manage to avoid a great deal of tax in the bargain. Clement Atlee rightly said, "If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his tax gladly, and not just dole out money at a whim". Facebook paid just £4,327 in taxes in the UK last year. This is the trouble with this kind of 'giving'. It appears generous but in reality it is giving the giver more than they give. Despite the fine words about equality for all, this means that wealthy philanthropists can retain more wealth than any human being needs, while gaining political power and recognition by telling everyone how generous they are.
At Christmas we celebrate a very different kind of giving, a very different kind of giver. From the riches of heaven, to the poverty of a byre in Bethlehem. Born of a teenage virgin. Raised as a carpenter's son. Losing his father as a boy. He was not famous, he had no money and when he began his 'ministry' he had no media outlets to tell the world. When he was born it was the minimum wage, social outcast shepherds who heard the announcement from angels. He was followed by a ragtag bag of fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, religious misfits and militant nationalists. He failed miserably. After a brief spell of popularity the mob turned on him, the religious establishment despised him and the political authorities crucified him. What did he give? He didn't set up trust funds, or political lobby groups. He didn't make grandiose promises about the end of disease or the increasing connectivity of humanity. He gave himself. Through his self-sacrifice he provided the gift that no money could buy, the gift that all of us need and that really does change the world – the forgiveness of sins and the rebirth of humanity. He connects people as brothers and sisters throughout the world, not just disembodied 'friends' on the Internet. He 'empowers' his people through the gift of His Spirit. He realizes our human potential in a way that we can only imagine. He paid his taxes 'giving to Caesar what is Caesars'. He gives us access to the mind of God. He created us all equal and he pays no attention to the meritocracy of the powerful elites. Blessed are the poor. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift. Maybe this Christmas we need to decide which gift we want to receive?
David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee.