What did you get for Christmas? This was the question floating around the Sunday School Class the Sunday after the 25th. For some, the answer was obvious. They wore their Christmas present; a new dress or sweater. Others bragged about their new Atari video console, their eyes bloodshot from a long night of Pong and Breakout. The teacher calmed us down to focus on the lesson, revolving around the Baby Jesus. This same scenario played out for many years of my childhood. The gifts changed year to year, but the excitement of sharing never did.
What did you get for Christmas last year? Now there’s a difficult question for a child to answer. Last year’s presents fade into the past. The dress or sweater doesn’t fit anymore. If it survived the year, a younger cousin wears it as a hand-me-down. Pong and Breakout are old hat. The new video games have color and wireless remotes! Walking down the street on trash day, I wonder how many of these curb ornaments were once treasures under the tree. Gifts of which we boasted in years forgotten are relegated to the bottom of the toy chest, replaced by this December’s plunder.
As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, we learn that piles of unwrapped gifts bring momentary happiness, communicating the love and thoughtfulness of the giver. But they never fully satisfy, no matter how expensive. The beautiful things of this world may thrill us for a time, but deep within the heart of every person is an unquenchable thirst. We search for the next gift; never content with what we have.
In a recent devotional, I encountered the thoughts of the late Dallas Willard unpacking a familiar Psalm. We all know how this Psalm begins. I memorized it in the King James Version back in those Sunday School days…
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters. (Ps. 23:1-2)
Those words, “I shall not want” are significant. When you surrender and follow YHWH, the Lord God, as a sheep follows a shepherd, you are satisfied. Please don’t misconstrue this as an opportunity to fall into the trap of consumerism. Prosperity preachers twist passages like this to say that believers in God who do not have all of their physical needs met are out of step with Jesus. This passage is not about getting what you want for Christmas. It’s not about cars and houses and boats. It’s about something much deeper. The ultimate fulfillment of your soul. As St. Augustine wrote in his confessions, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
Dallas Willard spotted something obvious that I have always overlooked. What do sheep do when they are in green pastures? They eat. What do sheep do when they are beside still waters? They drink. Sheep are ultimate consumers! But these sheep, shepherded by the Lord, are satisfied. Surrounded by rich, green grass (pretty rare in the arid Middle East) they are so full that they sleep. They follow the shepherd, bypassing the refreshment of still water, because they no longer thirst. “I shall not want” doesn’t mean you always have all of the physical things you desire. It means your soul is at rest in Him. Therefore, the things this world chases after have no allure to you. You are loved, provided for, and secure. Nothing compares. The search is over. All that is left is to keep following the Lord, and to avoid wandering toward things that promise joy, but never deliver. The greatest gift of Christmas is contentment, a gift found by those who follow Jesus, our Good Shepherd.