Jesus said: You’re far happier giving than getting. Acts 20:35 (The Message)
Christmas was coming, and I was feeling pretty fed up.
My problem was this: I was still single at the time (this was many years ago!) and I was planning to go to my recently widowed mother’s for a few days. I had it worked out in my mind - we would go to church on Christmas morning, come back home, exchange presents, have a good dinner, probably watch a bit of television, perhaps go for a walk - and no doubt do a bit of pretty serious snoozing.
Sorted. I had been working really hard, and the thought of such an easy, relaxing day was perfect.
But then my mother rang. “Colin, I hope you don’t mind, but we’re doing a special Christmas day lunch at church for the older people, and I’ve offered to help out. Will that be all right by you?”
Well, there wasn’t much I could say, was there? Of course I couldn’t back out of the visit altogether, and nor would I want to. But neither could I head off to Mum’s flat after the service and leave them to it. No, I would have to be in there too, being all bright and jolly with a load of elderly people I didn’t know.
Bang went my nice lazy Christmas Day. Thanks a bunch, Mum.
I won’t say I went to church that Christmas morning with a resentful spirit; no, I prayed that God would help me to be generous-spirited and cheerful, and I think he did. But I can’t pretend I was looking forward to the event all that much. It was a case, really, of “Oh well...” (sigh).
And what happened? It was one of the best, happiest, most enjoyable and most rewarding Christmas days I can ever remember.
It was hard work, mind you. I was just a general dogsbody, helping wherever needed. This was the days before churches routinely had dish-washers, so I seemed to spend until early evening up to my elbows in the washing up bowl.
But the laughter, the fun, the banter, the silliness, not to mention one or two serious conversations... I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And don’t worry - when serious-snooze time came around, we were well ready for it.
The lesson was clear. While we fallen human beings are hard wired to think first of our own pleasure and enjoyment, it really is true that putting others first yields a greater and deeper satisfaction.
At this time of the year we hear a lot in sermons and elsewhere about “the true meaning of Christmas”. That phrase covers a lot - above all, about God’s great love for humankind shown in the sending of Christ to be our teacher, our friend, our example, our sacrifice, our saviour, our lord.
And part of his example is his willingness to “spend and be spent” for our sakes, to give of himself to the very uttermost.
I sometimes think there is a sense in which “the baby of Bethlehem” gets in the way of what really matters. Yes, he was born as a baby - after all, how else could he have been? But he grew to be a man. And it’s what happened then that really counts.
Paul puts it like this: “...though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Whereas it is so natural for us to think only or mainly of ourselves - what we like, what we want - he thought only of us, even to the extent of giving his very life for us.
Here’s Paul again: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Yes, I thought my mothers’ plans for me that Christmas day were for my loss. But I learned that they were in fact for my gain. Even my slightly grudging service for others made me happy - as well, I hope, as doing some real good for people who are precious in God’s eyes.
Well, I don’t know what kind of Christmas you are anticipating this week. But I offer my little reminiscence in the hope that it might just possibly give you, as it did me, a new perspective on where happiness really comes from.
What is joy? - Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. Yes?
Father, thank you for the great love you showed at the first Christmas in giving Jesus to live, die and rise again for sinful people. Help me not only to enjoy that love myself, but, still more, to share it with others. Amen.