It’s a familiar scene. A baby is celebrating her first birthday surrounded by an array of brightly-wrapped gifts. With great anticipation and cameras recording the happy event, she is handed a package wrapped in colorful paper and tied with a shiny bow. Loving hands help to tear away the wrappings to reveal the gift inside. As cameras flash, her chubby little hands reach out to clutch … the gift wrap! The carefully chosen gift is ignored as all of her attention is focused on the brightly colored packaging!
We chuckle about her innocence, knowing that it will not be that long before she gets the hang of opening presents; soon she will be enthusiastically ripping and tearing away the superficial wrappings to get at the “good stuff” inside. Children quickly wise up: the wrappings may be flashy, but it’s what’s inside that counts! Sometimes the people of the church aren’t as wise as children in that respect – we can continue to be so enamored with all of the ‘wrappings’ with which we package the great gift of the Gospel that we can be distracted from the value of the gift itself.
Now let’s be clear: there is nothing at all wrong with presenting God’s magnificent gifts with all of the beauty and enthusiasm that we can express – they do warrant our best ‘wrappings.’ Just as indifferent attention to the packaging can detract from a valuable gift, so too does apathetic and listless worship not do credit to the priceless gifts that it conveys. No, there is certainly nothing at all wrong with our wanting to present God’s gifts in the most appealing and inspiring way – but we have a “gift wrap problem’ when we allow the “packaging” to become the focus of our attention. A clue that something like that is happening is when the quality of our worship is judged only by the fineness of the decorations, the beauty of the music, or the impressiveness of the preacher’s presentation – and not by whether the Word of God was proclaimed and His sacraments received. Good worship is never boring, but the source of excitement is the precious jewel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, which the wrappings should beautifully display.
Now there are various ways in which the “wrappings” can detract from the appreciation of the gift. The first, which we’ve been talking about, is when more attention is paid to the gift wrap than the gift. That’s sometimes a matter of the spiritual maturity of the recipient (like the baby in the example) but the church also doesn’t help matters when God’s Word and Sacraments are packaged in gaudy rituals and flashy entertainments that focus attention on the presentation, rather than the gift of salvation.
But another way in which the church sometimes has a “gift wrap problem” is analogous to the frustration we’ve all felt when a gift is rendered virtually inaccessible by the packaging in which it arrives – by the time we extract it from its protective ‘armor’ we’ve almost lost interest! This is analogous to the way the church has sometimes expressed its love for the gifts with which it’s entrusted by surrounding them with layers of obscuring minutia and rules and rituals intended to protect, but which can also obscure the glorious Good News of salvation freely received by trust in God’s grace. We always need to be careful that we don’t create unnecessary obstacles for the less spiritually mature or less doctrinally sophisticated who seek Christ. Our wrappings should be designed to make God’s gifts accessible!
Good “gift wrapping” is an art that requires love and thoughtfulness. And as our little girl should teach us, unwrapping gifts wisely involves its own skills and maturity. None of this happens easily or automatically. But we in the church need to take very seriously our obligation to present God’s grace in a manner which is faithful to the unique preciousness of the gift itself and the loving intent of the Giver who desires to give it to all. And as the recipients of God’s grace, we need to cultivate discernment to perceive the inestimable value of the gift itself, even when the packaging is disappointingly ‘ordinary’ or distractingly flamboyant. Whether giving or receiving: it’s good to appreciate the wrappings, but our focus must always remain on the gift!
“… but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)