What's the Gift?

Posted 4/29/2018

Scripture: Deuteronomy 8:1-20

Last week we saw how all that is — all we have and all we are — belong to God as the Creator of everything. As we read this reminder given to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy, however, we discover that sometimes our biggest problem may be forgetting this truth. In this passage we read the reminder, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.”

In a world that prizes self-made men and women we are tempted, much as Israel was, to forget that all we have is a gift. We are tempted to say to ourselves that we have earned what we have. We have worked hard for it and it is ours — ours to do with as we see fit.

In Israel’s day the temptation they faced was simply that of having become wealthy. Living in a society where wealth is common (the truth is even the poorest of us in this congregation is wealthy by the standards of the whole world), this is also our temptation. As I said, it is easy for us to join in our society’s assumptions that we have earned what we own and it is ours to do with as we please. It is difficult in our cultural environment to remember that even our ability to have anything is a gift from God — that all we are and all we have is a gift from God.

We might be tempted to think this failing to remember is, at best, a relatively minor thing. Regrettable perhaps, but not anything all that serious. However, this passage indicates that our forgetting that all we have and are is a gift from God and claiming it is the result of our own efforts is, plain and simple, idolatry. It is to “follow other gods to serve and worship them…”

This is one of the “dirty little secrets” that we Christians in America don’t want to acknowledge. Our society’s views toward wealth are, quite simply, idolatrous. Our insistence on seeing ourselves as “self-made” is, as the passage in Deuteronomy indicates, idolatry. Our focus on “getting ahead” as the most important thing in life and our defining getting ahead as “success” is idolatry. It is placing other gods — the gods of self, of possessions, of accomplishments — in God’s place. It is the worship of other gods. 

Our passage from Deuteronomy tells us this idolatry, rooted in the beliefs of our society, leads us away from recognizing that all we have and all we are is God’s gift to us. In this, we (and I mean all of us, myself included) are, like the Israelites, living with temptation — and often succumbing to that temptation to see ourselves as “self-made” and so claim everything as our own. 

Yet, as I reflected on this notion of the gift(s) we have received, especially as I reflected on it coming back from a recent week of vacation, I found myself wondering if there wasn’t also another dynamic beyond the temptations our society places in front of us that makes it difficult for us to acknowledge that all we have and all we are is pure gift — a gift from God.

One of the delights of my vacation time was the opportunity to slow down. To start my day in a leisurely way, I had time to stop to reflect any time I wanted to. I had the opportunity to savor time. I was able to simply BE rather than always trying to DO. 

How different this vacation experience was from the expectations that are normally a part of our daily lives! Normally we “save time,” treating it as a precious commodity that we dare not “waste.” Productivity — “making something” of our time — is the norm. We even schedule our free time to make sure we can jam in as much “fun” as possible! 

The reality is we are constantly trying to squeeze more and more into the day, until we haven’t a moment to pause, breath and simply notice what is around us. In such a world, time spent simply enjoying the beauty of a sunrise or sunset is viewed as time that could have been spent accomplishing something of value. In other words, we jam our days so full of activity we have no time to consider what gifts God has given us, much less to pause to notice God’s presence.

In the press to do more — to have more, to experience more — there is precious little to no time to slow down. There isn’t time to acknowledge what we have received. There isn’t time to relish the gift. 

I’ve heard grandparents complaining about how their grandchildren don’t write “thank you” notes for Christmas and birthday gifts any more. Certainly, our society — and modern parents — don’t encourage this habit. But I suspect the habit has fallen into disfavor at least partly because we seldom take the time to appreciate a gift as a gift. We look at our gifts for their usefulness. We consider how the gift may save us time. We rejoice in how the gift can “add to our lives” by either giving us more free time or by making our free time more “productive” of fun and enjoyment. But we don’t stop to consider the gift as a gift. The gifts we receive are too often viewed simply as one more thing for us to use for our own advantage, one more way of making our lives more “productive” (even if that “productivity is simply having more fun). 

What is the gift? As we saw last week and this week, the gift we have received is all we have and all we are. Yet in our world, perhaps the greatest gift of all is God’s invitation to slow down, to relieve ourselves of the demand to be productive in every moment. To take time to appreciate the gifts we have received. The gifts of life. The gifts of what we possess. The gift of God’s presence in our midst.

When we pause to consider the gift, we discover we have received so much! We discover we have so much to be thankful for. We even discover that we ourselves are a gift — that our mere being is God’s gift to us. 

May we take the time to pause and recognize the gifts and give thanks to God, the giver of “every good and perfect gift.”