The Language of Gift-Giving

This Lent, we’re doing a sermon series at St. Paul’s on the Five Love Languages. (I explain it a lot in the beginning of the sermon, so I won’t go into it here.) I wanted the series to still be lectionary based–that is, we would stick with the assigned readings, rather than going off on other texts I would personally pick. Most of the weeks lined up very nicely, but this first week, and gift-giving, was a bit more of a stretch. That’s why we have a long look at “bad” gift-giving, instead of just the good aspects.

Lent 1 Texts: RCL Texts

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you heard of love languages before? They first appeared in a book in 1992 by Gary Chapman. Chapman is a Baptist minister, but also a licensed counselor. He wrote the book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, based on observations in his counseling practice.

This Lent, we’re going to spend one week looking at each of the Love Languages: Gift-Giving, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, and Acts of Service. Chapman theorizes that we each have a primary love language—a main way that we like to receive affection. Trouble can arise in relationships when partners’ love languages are not the same—and when they fail to understand what the other needs or to communicate their own needs.

For example, my primary love language is acts of service, which means I see things like Tim folding the laundry, getting an oil change for my car, or doing the dishes as how he shows he loves me. Tim’s primary love language is words of affirmation. So, when I take care packing his lunch, it doesn’t mean as much to him as if I leave a little note inside telling him I value him. Chapman’s goal in describing these love languages is to help people learn to be multilingual. To be able to understand how others give and receive love differently from them, and to increase communication. So even though my primary love language hasn’t changed, I’m able to understand that Tim is looking for different things than I am and meet his needs, and vice versa.

Since the first book, he’s broadened his theory to include not just couples, but parents and children, workplace dynamics, friendships, really any form of relationship. These love languages are not limited to romantic relationships but are how we share appreciation and love in all of our varied roles.

I should say, as a caveat, this is a theory. It’s not really testable, and it certainly shouldn’t be used to constrict us. But it can help us understand ourselves and others a little bit better. In the narthex, there are short questionnaires that will help you determine what your primary love language is. And what I’ll be talking about in the sermon series are the ways that God speaks all of our love languages. We receive love differently from each other, and that’s okay, because God is able to love each of us in the ways that we need and in the ways that speak to our hearts.

This week, we’re looking at the love language of gift-giving. Gift-giving isn’t materialistic—at least it shouldn’t be—it just means that a thoughtful or meaningful gift makes you feel loved and appreciated. At the end of a long week, if a partner or friend surprises you with a pint of your favorite ice cream (or perhaps beer) it is hugely appreciated. You might a gift-giver if you’re the one who always has to buy the small trinket when it makes you think of someone.

But every love language can become warped. And in our readings this morning, we have some examples of bad gift-giving. Or at the very least, attempts at bad gift-giving. In the first reading of Adam and Eve and the Gospel reading of Jesus’ temptation, the serpent and Satan offer some gifts, but with the worst of motivations. These gifts seek to manipulate the recipients. They come with strings attached. They are not based in love but in the desire to control.

These are sometimes confusing texts to apply to our lives today, because the idea of a walking, speaking devil—much less a speaking snake—just isn’t something that we operate with anymore. But instead of dismissing these texts out of hand as no longer relevant to us, might we think seriously about how evil is present in our world today? About how its gifts and promises still seek to lure us into temptation?

Adam and Eve are promised the best gift of all: if you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will be like God. You will be in control. You will have power. Power is the main temptation that Jesus faced, too. Power to change his circumstances, power to prove his worth. While we don’t have talking snakes anymore, power is still a very real temptation for us today.

Temptations are real, whether we call them temptations or call them something else. The things in our lives that try to undermine our relationships with God and with each other are temptations. Wealth. Power. Control. Prestige. Less obvious things, like prejudice, fear, and contempt. Everyday we face temptations that seem like they might be good things that will help us. Or will keep us safe.

But the gifts that temptation offers aren’t gifts of love. They are gifts undermine us. Gifts that take away from our true identity as God’s children. The devil even prefaces all of his pleas with the words: “if you are the Son of God.” Power, greed, and envy, prejudice and hatred, they all seek to make us prove we are good enough. Deserving enough. These aren’t not gifts of love, but of control and manipulation.

But if we see how gifts can be given or offered in a bad way in these readings, we also see how God speaks the language of gift-giving in loving, life-giving ways. The gifts that God gives aren’t meant to manipulate. They aren’t meant to control. They aren’t given for the sake of the giver, but instead they are wholly for the recipient. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul describes “God’s free gift in the grace of Jesus Christ.” It is given to all people to bring liberation, justification, righteousness. In other words, it is given to bring life. Given to free us from the ways that evil seeks to keep us bound. Given that we might know God’s love for us and claim on us. A gift given in pure love.

Temptation offers us many gifts—gifts that say, “Do this, and you will be happy…If you only had this, you would be complete…Without this, you are nothing.” God’s gift of love and grace says instead, “It is already done, you are complete, because you are mine.”

My love language isn’t gift-giving, or gift-receiving. In fact, I really struggle with receiving gifts. I feel like I need to offer something in return, or that the gift I give will be taken the wrong way. My mom is a good gift-giver and receiver. She’ll tell me: if someone wants to give you a gift, let them. They don’t expect anything in return, not if they truly mean it. They just want to do something nice for you.

She’s right, as she often is. The only thing we can do with God’s gift of grace and love is accept it. We can’t earn it, and we can’t pay God back for it somehow. That’s not why God gives it in the first place. God gives it not to get anything back, but because of how much God loves us. The only thing we can do with this free gift of love is to cherish it, to let it enter deep within us and come pouring out again in love for others in our lives.

We thank you, God, for your gifts in our lives: the gift of everything we have, but most especially the free gift of your love in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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