Third Sunday of Advent, 2015: “It’s the thought that counts”

David Castillo Dominici /
David Castillo Dominici /

Christmas is now less than two weeks away. Have you finished whatever gift shopping you intended to do? On the one hand, I know people who hit the post-holiday sales and get all their Christmas shopping done by January. (They’re viewed by their neighbors with a mixture of curiosity, awe, and resentment.) On the other hand, I know others who will be running about on December 24th just to get something wrapped and under the tree.

I guarantee that somewhere in America on Christmas morning a wife will eagerly open a gift from her husband and then stare at it in blank confusion, as if to say, “What on earth made you think I would actually want something like this?” And hubby will shrug sheepishly and respond, “Well, it’s the thought that counts.”

In a sense, as a matter of principle, he’s right: much of a gift’s true value lies in the intention behind it. Unfortunately, as a matter of execution, that’s also where he’s wrong and why she’s upset. To her, his choice of gift shows a lack of thought — literally, it’s thoughtless. He didn’t take the time to know or find out what would please her, and gave out of a sense of obligation rather than desire.

I’m not making a case for or against holiday gift-giving. My point is more general: what and how we give shows the state of our hearts. And to give rightly and well begins with gratitude and appreciation for the gifts we ourselves have already received.

Here, for example, is one of the most memorized verses in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, NRSV). God loved, and because he loved, he gave the priceless gift of life for life.

For many, Christmas gift-giving is an outside-in affair. We get wrapped up (no pun intended) in the busyness of it all and the anxiety of “getting it right,” as with an obligation imposed on us from the outside. For others, it’s more inside-out; they give because they want to do something that says, “You are special to me.”

Again, to be clear: that’s not an argument in favor of consumer madness. Store-bought gifts are not the only way to show love and appreciation. There is no reason why anyone has to let Madison Avenue dictate the terms by which family and friends must show their love.

So how about this: today, let’s meditate on the gift of love we have already received. God loved. God gave. We are the unexpectedly blessed recipients of the gift of life, of game-changing resurrection newness for both the present and the future.

And then let’s think about the people on our gift list, one by one. Yes, they can get our goat from time to time. Yes, there are things about them we might wish to change. But what do we appreciate about them? In what way has their life been a gift to us?

Savor the gift. Give thanks to God. Then do as your heart directs.