Surprises. They make up a big part of Christmas anticipation, don’t they? Packages of all shapes and sizes begin to appear under the tree, and with them the growing expectation of wonderful, exciting surprises. Who knows what might be in that small, square box—perhaps a ring? And it’s not just the presents we give and receive. Have you ever been left breathless at seeing a son or daughter or friend from a thousand miles away standing before you on Christmas morning? Christmas surprises are great!
But what if you received exactly the same gift each year, say a pair of generic black socks? They would be warm and useful, but after a couple of years, the anticipation and surprise would be long gone, replaced by the dull sameness of the gift. When you think about it, doesn’t that happen with any earthly present? Each year there is the buzz about what will be the big gift everyone wants. It might be a toy character from a popular animated movie, a new tech gadget, or maybe a must-have hat or jacket. But would you want to receive that same gift every year? Our closets and basements are filled with “things” which have lost their appeal and are now just junk. That is why Jesus urges, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20 NIV84).
There is no greater surprise gift than that of God’s own Son. It was not that God didn’t announce it. In Eden, thousands of years before the first Christmas, He promised to send the Seed of the woman. He repeated the promise and elaborated on it through the prophets. And in the fullness of time, He fulfilled it in the manger of Bethlehem. Each year during Advent we prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus’ arrival into our sinful world. We know He has come. We know just how and when we will celebrate His advent again this year, right down to the time of the Christmas Eve children’s service and the Christmas Day song service.
So where’s the surprise? It is in the depth of God’s love and the lengths to which He went to make it all happen. Faced with a world totally corrupted with sin, with no goodness or any other redeeming quality, what could one realistically expect the holy God to do? What would you do if you had been in God’s place? The only rational, sensible thing to do would be to condemn mankind to hell, destroy the ruined creation, and start over. What’s more, justice demands it. “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20 NIV84). There was nothing preventing God from doing just that—nothing except His surprising love.
St. Paul marvels, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1 NIV84). We were God’s enemies by nature, yet He gave us His dearest treasure. We wanted nothing to do with Jesus; He came to be our Brother and keep the Law for us. We hesitate and balk at the slightest inconvenience for Him; He suffered hell for us on the cross.
So this Advent and Christmas season, prepare to be surprised all over again. Anticipate great things when you go to midweek services and hear the Lord’s call to recognize your dire spiritual need, turn from sin, and look to the Christ child for true peace. And when you hear the angel’s familiar announcement to the shepherds of a newborn Savior, let the good news of great joy fill your heart with love for Him who so loved us! May God’s Gift always be the greatest of delightful surprises!
Michael Eichstadt is pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, and president of the Church of the Lutheran Confession.