I want you to think about the greatest sporting gift you could ever receive.
Because that’s what Christmas is all about right – gifts?
Well in its greatest sense – yes, it is. Christmas is about God’s gift to mankind of his son. A baby born as a gift, given out of love.
But have you thought of how all of God’s other good gifts are given to help us delight in him? These gifts are given to help us see and delight in the giver.
So, what’s on your sporting wish list?
My greatest ever present was a cricket bat. I was seven years old and about to get my first piece of willow. I was beside myself and couldn’t contain my excitement. So much so that I slipped on the floor as I ran into the sports shop to pick it up and smashed my head through a window! But that bat was glorious. I loved the feel of the wood, the smell of the linseed oil and the beautiful thwack of the ball as it occasionally struck the middle of the bat.
I was so incredibly thankful to my parents who bought it for me. It allowed me to experience the game I loved in a new way.
Cricket for me is the smells (cut grass and tasty sandwiches), the sounds (a half-hearted appeal or a ripple of applause) and the touch (a ball nestling into your hands when you take a catch or the feel of bat on ball). It’s also the people – a wide range of ages and backgrounds all performing their specific skills together.
For me, cricket is a wonderful gift.
When we think about gifts, some will more naturally think of a sunset or a beautiful concerto. Maybe an intricately crafted painting or a well-told story. For the sportsperson it could be the joy of a well-timed tackle or the delight at straining every sinew of your body to achieve a new goal.
Every gift this Christmas can help us delight in the giver of that gift. Every gift in this world can help us delight in God and understand more about him.
Paul, in the New Testament, says this amazing thing about God’s gift giving to us:
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” 1 Tim 6:17
He has given us all we need – for our enjoyment. Have you ever thought of God like this - the greatest giver of gifts?
He is not a killjoy. He gave us good gifts for our pleasure, and he also set wise boundaries so we would know how to enjoy them.
Joe Rigney in his beautiful book ‘Strangely Bright’ puts the gifts of God into three categories:
Those which delight our senses, like the trees God commanded Adam to eat of in the garden.
Close your eyes at this point and think about your favourite day in your sport.
I want you to listen to the sounds. Feel the textures. Smell all that you can. See all that is around you. Taste whatever you eat or drink that day.
The gift of a sunrise as you run over the crest of a hill, the smell of freshly cut grass in the Autumn, the taste of an orange squash to parch your thirst and the feel of a new pair of trainers as you pound the tarmac are all given to arouse our senses and bring us pleasure.
It was not good for Adam to be alone, so God created Eve and Adam quickly composed a poem in praise and awe of the one God had created. Eve represents all the people we love and relate to.
Sport is full of community and all the interlocking relationships we have are wonderful gifts for us to enjoy.
Adam and Eve were given tasks. To multiply and subdue the earth and to name the animals and work the land.
All the tasks we have been given to do that are honouring to God, we can do for the love of others and the glory of God.
The coaching of our child’s team, the work of a physio or the playing of a role in a team. All these activities are contexts through which we can enjoy many of the other pleasures God has given to us.
Our purpose in life is to glorify God and delight in him above all other things. Our prayer is to be that of the Psalmists:
Whom have I in heaven but you? On earth there's nothing I desire besides you.
The problem comes when we don’t do this, and we desire the gifts more than the giver. Paul notes this clearly in Romans 1:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Paul tells us here how we can see God’s invisible qualities, through what he has made. The wonderful gifts we have just talked about show us God.
Yet we do two things with these gifts.
Firstly, we refuse to acknowledge God as the giver of these good gifts. We unwrap the present but ignore the giver. When we receive a gift, our natural impulse is to thank someone but we, as fallen people, suppress that impulse when it comes to God and his gifts.
We also make these gifts our gods –they become too precious to us. We look for our joy, satisfaction and fulfillment in the good things God has given us, not in God himself. As Paul clearly says – this is totally foolish. The gifts cannot give us what we truly need – meaning and significance. Our sport is a great gift but a poor god.
Christmas is a great reminder of this. It is a story of grace, not performance. We receive gifts, we don’t earn them.
Jesus’ brother James tells us:
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
Whilst the gifts are good, they are, unlike God, inconsistent and unreliable.
The gifts of this world – the sensible, relational and vocational gifts – are ones which are given to cause us to find joy in the one who has given them to us.
CS Lewis noted this in his meditations on prayer:
Gratitude exclaims, very properly: ‘How good of God to give me this.’ Adoration says: ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this! One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun. Let the sunbeams of the joy we find in sport, lift our eyes back up to the sun – the source of all our pleasure and joy and cause us to adore him and know him.
This Christmas – let the real presents you receive and the other gifts you reflect and give thanks for, all cause you to praise and worship the God who gave the greatest gift in the world, his own son.
Jonny is the Resources and Communications Team Leader at Christians in Sport. He plays cricket at Cumnor Cricket Club and is one of the leaders of Town Church Bicester.
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