Are you prepared for Christmas? Have you finished your holiday baking and decorating? The date for the cookies to be made for the annual office cookie exchange is lurking around the corner. Not to mention the separate batches of baked treats for friends and family, and most importantly, the preparation for Christmas dinner.

The lines in the mall may not be a worry as shopping online has become easier, but the habitual checking of the tracking numbers on the packages to ensure their timely arrival does not diminish the stressful nature of Christmas shopping. Do you have time for all the Christmas parties and get-togethers? What about the Christmas programs? And, did you find that perfect gift for everyone on your list?

What we expect to be the most wonderful time of the year can, in reality, be the most stressful and exhausting time of the year.

With so much to do and never enough of what we need, Christmas can overwhelm and debilitate us. And the joyful act of gift-giving quickly becomes a burden as we scramble to find the time, energy, and finances for everyone. What we expect to be the most wonderful time of the year can, in reality, be the most stressful and exhausting time of the year.

Receiving gifts can also become a burden. Did the worth of the gift I gave them match the worth of the gift they gave me? Worse, what if we receive a gift unexpectedly without a gift to give in return? It can be more difficult for us to get a gift without expectations or guilt attached. The season of benevolence becomes a transaction.

In the television show, The Big Bang Theory, one of the main characters, Sheldon, is fraught by the idea of Christmas, specifically the social convention of gift giving. The character of Sheldon is an archetype of the stress which can accompany Christmas shopping and gift exchanges. He remarks, “The foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift, you’ve given me an obligation.” Whether it’s Christmas or birthdays, his character feels there is an obligation to give a gift of equal value to that which is received and based upon the nature of the relationship.

Our sinful nature wants to believe that the foundation of the gospel is reciprocity. Our Old Adam would quickly believe that God hasn’t given us a gift by Christ’s birth that Christmas Day, but an obligation. Our inner pharisee would presume that the birth of Jesus isn't a gift but an example of how we are to live and behave. Either Jesus is only for the good little boys and girls who deserve him, or he has come as an example of how to earn God’s favor. Our Old Adam is always looking for a catch in the gospel, what Sheldon would call a “Bazinga” or an affirmation to prove that we have been fooled, that the gospel as free gift really was too good to be true after all.

We may be familiar with Scripture verses like that which Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). But that doesn’t stop our Old Adam from dredging up the uneasiness that this is too good to be true.

Our sinful nature wants to believe that the foundation of the gospel is reciprocity.

The Apostle continues in the following verse, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Is this the catch? Are our good works written on a ledger, are our good deeds weighed against our sins, is Christ an example and helper to get us back on track? The key is in the verbs. God prepared good works in Christ for us. Our good works are a gift! They are a gift in Christ that we may be a blessing to our neighbors.

In the Gospel of Luke, angels announce the gospel gift of Christ’s birth to lowly shepherds. It was an unexpected and joyous gift of good news that night as they were suddenly surrounded by angels. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). There was no gift they could give the giver in return, nothing could match the gift of the gracious and merciful God who had sent his only Son for us. They simply returned to their lives and spread the good news of the incarnate Christ whom they had heard about and seen (Luke 2:17). God prepared this good work in advance. The gospel would spread by the lips of lowly shepherds.

As we focus on the gifts of God this Advent, we enjoy the gifts won and given to us in Christ. We are free to enjoy the gifts of God which come through his life-giving Word and sacraments. We are baptized! We are forgiven saints and children of our Heavenly Father. We have been given the gift of eternal life through the work of Jesus, and no one can take that gift from us. We are also free to enjoy the gifts he gives through our neighbors and their good works. Everything with our Lord is a gift given to us freely. We don’t have to worry about deserving, earning, or reciprocating his gifts. Our Lord doesn’t give us what we deserve. We are given what he deserves, what Jesus has won for us. Fear not, for your Savior has come for you to make you his own.