Tis the season for over-excitement and sugar, and consequently we have had some trouble recently getting our 8-year-old son to settle in for the night. We are throwing everything we have in our parenting playbook at the problem. Sticking to a routine – check. Limiting caffeine – check. Rewarding positive behavior – check. Resorting to threats of dire consequences and raised voices – yep, those too. We don’t “do Santa” at our house, but I’ll admit that in my weaker moments I have considered introducing him if only to pull out the ultimate threat – coal in the stocking!

Last night, after fighting the good fight once again, I was walking my loveable but noncompliant kid back to his room for the umpteenth time when he nonchalantly asked, “So, what do I get if I stay in my room tonight?”.  My response was quick and less than gracious. “What do you get?! You get the opportunity to not be in trouble!”

No, my son definitely did not deserve any extra screen time or bedtime snack or any other treat he was angling for. Staying in bed after lights out was a minimum standard of obedience, and I was not about to reward him for doing what he was expected to do anyway.

The brutal truth for me, however, is that at times I am no better when it comes to what I expect of God. My human nature wants “credit” for the things I do right. I want a pat on the back from God when I manage to keep from saying something hurtful, succeed at resisting the temptation to put extra sleep before time in the Word or give a bit of time or money to someone in need. In those moments I want to say, “Did you see that, God? What do I get for obeying you? What’s my reward?”

As I ponder this reasoning, however, I realize how short sighted this thinking is. Just as there was no reward for my son for meeting the minimum expectation of obedience, why would I expect God’s favor simply for meeting the minimum standard he sets for me, especially when I know that keeping those standards are in my own best interest as well as that of my neighbor?

And what about on those other days? Let’s be honest. Even on my best day I fall woefully short of God’s minimum standard of obedience. Paul lays out my condition perfectly in Romans 7: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” I can relate. Neither does Paul mince words when it comes to what I deserve, and it is far from a reward. “The wages of sin is death.” (Rom 6:23) Ouch!

This Christmas I will be giving gifts to several deserving folks. From my kids’ teachers to the mail carrier, I’m grateful for their hard work on behalf of my family and me and I want to show that gratitude with a gift of appreciation. That’s not, however, how God gives gifts.

I’m so grateful that Romans 6:23 does not end with a hopeless death sentence. Paul goes on to write, “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

A free gift. God’s greatest gift to the world is not given to say, “job well done”, or “nice effort”, or even “at least you tried”.  The beauty and miracle of the gift of Jesus to a broken and hurting world is that he is not deserved. Quite the opposite. I deserved punishment but Jesus came that I might receive mercy. I deserved death, but Jesus came to offer me pardon. I deserved eternity apart from Him and instead, because of the gift of Jesus, I am promised that nothing can separate me from God’s love. Nothing.

No, this Christmas I’m not getting what I deserve and neither are you. Thanks be to God we are  getting immeasurably more than we deserve. It may sound cliché to call Jesus “the Best Christmas Gift ever” but that’s exactly what He is. A free, undeserved gift given not because of our merit but because of God’s love.

Holy Week Services at Holy Cross Lutheran Church