From This Point Forward
The Gift Exchange: Trading Heaven for Earth
by David Jeremiah
Jim and Della were husband and wife and lived in a single rented room in New York City in the early 1900's. They barely scraped by week to week on their meager incomes, but they made up in their love for one another everything they lacked in material goods. Just when it seemed things could hardly get worse, Jim's salary was cut from $30 to $20 a week -- with Christmas just days away.
On Christmas Eve the couple still had no gifts for one another. Della had long wanted to buy Jim a gold chain for his sole possession of value, a gold watch. The $1.87 she had saved was far short of being enough for such an extravagant gift, but suddenly she realized how she could fulfill her dream. She could sell the one thing of value she possessed, her long flowing hair, and probably get enough to buy the chain.
A woman who fashioned wigs and hairpieces for women gave Della $20 for her gorgeous locks. With the money she had saved, she now had enough to buy the $21 chain for Jim's watch. She could hardly contain her excitement as she waited for Jim to come home from work on Christmas Eve. But she wondered how he would react to her short hair; he had always loved her long hair and knew how much it meant to her.
When Jim entered their room, he looked stunned -- even more so than Della had expected. Hurriedly, she brought out her precious gift of the gold chain and gave it to Jim, explaining that she had sold her hair in order to buy his Christmas gift. Without unwrapping the present, Jim took from his pocket his own gift for Della. As she slowly unwrapped it, she discovered a set of beautiful combs for her hair. She and Jim had seen them in a shop window, but of course they had been too expensive to purchase. So how had Jim afforded such an extravagant gift?
When Jim unwrapped Della's gift to him, she urged him to take out his gold watch and attach the chain. With Jim’s hesitation came the realization that he had sold his watch to get the money to buy the combs for Della. Each had given up their most valued possession at Christmas in order to bring joy and happiness to the one they loved.
This short story, perhaps the most famous written by American writer William Sydney Porter (who wrote it under the pen name O. Henry), is titled The Gift of the Magi. It has become one of the best-known Christmas stories of all time. But there is a sense in which Jim and Della's sacrificial love for one another pictures something far deeper than the generosity of the magi and the gifts they brought to the Christ child. For the magi, generous as they apparently were, did not give everything they had as did Jim and Della. But there is another who did.
Jim and Della both needed something they were unable to provide for themselves. They had no resources, no wealth, no means to secure their own provisions. In that sense, they were a perfect picture of the human race at the time of the first Christmas. We needed so many things -- to be reconciled to the Father; to be forgiven of our sins; to be made holy; to be given purpose and meaning in life; to discover our eternal destiny -- none of which we were able to provide for ourselves. The only way mankind could get what we so desperately needed was for another to provide it for us. And that is what Christmas is about.
Jesus Christ gave up heaven in order to gain those He loved: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
Jesus Christ exchanged the glories of heaven and the personal presence of the Father and the Spirit in order to give us what we could never secure for ourselves—the gift of salvation and reconciliation with the Father. He divested Himself of the heavenly places in order to walk the dusty roads of Judea -- roads which led Him to make the ultimate sacrifice, the giving of His own life. The Apostle Paul tells us in no uncertain terms what Jesus exchanged for us, and he admonishes us to manifest the same sacrificial spirit as Jesus did:
"Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and died a selfless, obedient death -- and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion" (Philippians 2:5-8; The Message).
What must heaven have thought when it became known that the Second Person of the Trinity was exchanging glory for humanity, exchanging heaven for earth? The British scholar and churchman, J. B. Phillips (1906-1982), who gave us one of the earliest paraphrases of the New Testament, also composed a delightful fantasy about the coming of Christ to planet earth. In his story, "The Angels' Point of View," Phillips has a senior angel showing a very young angel around the splendors of the universe. They view whirling galaxies and blazing suns, and then they flit across the infinite distances of space, until at last they enter one particular galaxy of 500 billion stars.
As the two of them drew near to the star which we shall call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.
"I want you to watch that one particularly," said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.
"Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me," said the little angel. "What is special about that one?"
The little angel saw the earth and was not very impressed. He listened in stunned unbelief as the senior angel told him that this planet, small and insignificant, and not overly clean, was the renowned Visited Planet.
"Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince went down in person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that?" The little angel's face wrinkled in disgust. "Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?"
"I do," said the senior angel, "and I don't think He would like you to call them 'creeping, crawling creatures' in that tone of voice. For strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him."
The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.
And it should be beyond ours. As Paul the apostle said, it is an "indescribable gift!" (II Corinthians 9:15).
Jim and Della's gifts to one another were, humanly speaking, likewise indescribable. Sacrifice is always hard to fathom, hard to comprehend. And how much harder to comprehend is the sacrifice Christ made, the exchange He willingly submitted to, in order to give us the gift of Himself at that first Christmas.
Jim and Della's lives would have gone on without their gifts of combs and a gold chain. And our lives will go on this Christmas even if we don't receive a single gift. But think where we would be at this moment if Jesus Christ had not given us the indescribable gift of His presence among us. Some gifts we can live without, but His gift we would surely die without.
This Christmas, as you consider giving up what you own in order to bring joy and blessing to those you love, remember the greatest sacrificial exchange ever made. May Christ's sacrifice become the model we follow as we love and serve one another -- on Christmas Day and every day of the year.