the white elephants of Advent

Advent is a season of giving. I guess the three Wise Kings get credit for this tradition because they were the first to bring gifts to the Christ Child. Although truthfully, God really gave the first gift when He gave His only Son, Jesus, to the world. Nevertheless, now Santa Claus has taken up the gift giving cause in a world wide kind of way, involving workshops at the North Pole run by elves, a magical sleigh, flying reindeer and a midnight ride that makes Paul Revere’s pale in comparison. (Santa covers a lot more ground than Paul did)

Perhaps I am thinking of gifts now because today is the day of the annual white elephant gift exchange and I am scrambling to select something worthy of this occasion. It is said that this term “white elephant gift” originated with the King of Siam, who gave albino elephants to courtiers he did not like, so that they would be ruined by the animal’s upkeep costs. Over time, this became more generalized to kings giving worthless or undesirable gifts to those who were not favored. Today a white elephant gift is something we have lying around the house that we don’t really like or use, something we wish to get rid of, something or anything we no longer want which would make a humorous or a silly gift.

Now one man’s junk could turn out to be another man’s treasure, but most often a white elephant is just that, a white elephant – no matter who the beholder. I don’t see where white elephant gifts were a popular concept anywhere in the Bible. In fact, gifts were a big deal in the Bible and taken very seriously. It was their gifts to God that caused the conflict between Cain and Able. King David said he would not give to God an offering that cost him nothing. Gifts to God were to be from the firstfruits of the individual’s crop or herd, not from what was substandard or leftover. Animals sacrificed to God in the temple were to be the first born, perfect, unblemished animals from the flocks.

Gifts were a sign of reverence, respect and esteem due the recipient of the gift from the giver. The original three gifts given to Jesus set the bar pretty high for future offerings. We read about these first gifts of Advent brought by the Wise Men to Jesus in Matthew 2:9-11 – they were gold, frankincense and myrrh.

” . . . and the star they had seen in the east stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”

Gold was a gift given to royalty, given to Kings. Gold was considered the most valuable substance of all and was the standard by which the value of everything else was measured. By giving Jesus gold, the Wise Men acknowledged the Kingship of the Christ Child even if the rest of the world did not. Frankincense was used to worship the King and this gift recognized Jesus’s role as our great High Priest before God. Myrrh was a costly spice used to embalm the dead. This gift foretold Jesus’s sacrificial death on our behalf, the sacred purpose for which He was born.

These first gifts of the first Advent were rare and costly gifts, befitting the One who was born King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This causes me to consider what gifts I am offering to the Christ child during this Advent season. Am I giving Jesus my firstfruits or am I giving Him my leftovers? Am I giving white elephant gifts or am I offering to Jesus something befitting of who He is? Still, what could I possibly offer up to the Savior of all mankind, Creator of the universe, Lord of all? God Himself says in Psalm 50:7-13,

“Hear, O My people, and I will speak, O Israel, and I will testify against you: I am God, your God. I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before Me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are Mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is Mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?”

So what does God desire from me? He certainly doesn’t need anything I have to offer. However, God says –

“Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor Me.” (Psalm 50:14-15)

A grateful heart toward God, honoring God, acknowledging Him as my provider – these things are what He desires from me. Hebrews 13:15-16 tells me more about what I can give to God, saying –

“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”

So now I am learning what pleases my Heavenly Father – praise, confession, sharing, generosity, – these are the sacrifices God desires rather than burnt offerings. I also learn in Psalm 50:15-17 –

“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”

Micah asked this same question so long ago – what gift could he give to God that God would want?

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

How clear that is! God wants me to be acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with Him. I am to offer up to God a broken, repentant, humble spirit and a contrite heart. The psalmist says God does not take pleasure in burnt offerings.

Well, we don’t do animal sacrifices and burnt offerings anymore, but we do something similar – we give our money in the offering plate. I guess that’s our altar of sacrifice. Maybe in our culture today, money is what the burnt offerings were to the Israelites then. They gave some of their possessions to God in place of giving themselves to God. We do the same thing. We give our money, all the while holding onto our hearts, keeping them for ourselves or giving them to other gods. Turns out, God doesn’t want our stuff – He wants us. Go figure? Paul writes to the believers in Rome these words,

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1)

So God wants me, not the substitute of an animal sacrifice or money. And He wants all of me.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)

God wants my heart, my soul, my mind and my strength and the operative word seems to be all. God gave me all when He gave me His Son, Jesus.

“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)

Jesus gave me His all when He gave His very life on that cross so that I could be forgiven of my sins and receive eternal life.

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

God has already given the greatest gift, the perfect gift to me and to the whole world. This Advent season, as I ponder the perfect gift to bring to Him, may I not be guilty of offering to Him a white elephant gift, – an unwanted castoff, the leftovers of my life, my partial, half-hearted attention and affection. No, may I give to God that which He desires – thank offerings, sacrifices of praise, a contrite heart, all of me with nothing held back. God’s word says thanksgiving, praise, contrition are the sacrifices He desires.

Then I read 1 Samuel 15:22 and I know I have found the perfect gift –

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

I will offer up obedience, I will be all in, and I will say along with the psalmist –

“Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise His holy name.” (Psalm 103:1)

such are the gifts of Advent,

sincerely, Grace Day

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