By Justin Clemente
This year, my kids have gone head over heels for “The Elf on the Shelf.” Lately, I’ve been forced into watching YouTube videos which purport to show the scout elf hard at work while you sleep. Lucy – I mean, the Elf – has been found in various odd places all around the house, much to the surprise of Copeland. Even gifts from the elf have appeared in our home! It’s full-on elf madness, folks. In case you haven’t had the pleasure of being introduced to this craze, let me do the honors.
From the product packaging: “This charming tradition began for our family when my children were very small. Like most children through the ages, they wanted to know how Santa really knew who was naughty and who was nice. This answer, as in my own childhood, came in the form of a small scout elf. … Unwittingly, the tradition provided an added benefit: it helped the children to better control themselves. All it took was a gentle reminder that the “scout elf is watching,” for errant behavior to be modified.”
Well, perhaps the description helps you understand why, after reading the official Elf on the Shelf story book to my kids, I exclaimed, “I give Elf on the Shelf an F!” The shock. The horror. I said to my kids, “I’m so glad you’re having fun with the elf story – but just don’t believe it has anything to do with Jesus.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to start another culture war over “Elf on the Shelf,” okay? But what I do want to point out is that it’s completely illustrative of how we, young and old alike, naturally think. Elf on the Shelf makes sense to us – if we’re good, we’ll get good in return. It’s also so very, very far off from the message of the Gospel. After we finished reading the Elf book, I asked my kids a question. I said, “Guys, is a gift a gift if you have to earn it?” After some discussion, they all agreed that no, that would just be a wage, a payment, a reward.
The Gospel of Christmas is so very, very different. It begins by assuming that we have all earned a wage, more like a debt we cannot repay, and that none of us are in the right with God. Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In Romans 3, Paul famously says that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” The second part of those verses catapult us into the next part of the Christmas Gospel.
At the apex of the Bible’s story, God sent forth a child, his Son. Hebrews 1 tells us that, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Galatians 4 says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.” I can understand how foolish this must seem to some people – the idea that God’s gift to the world would come in the form of a baby. But this is what the Gospel does – it takes the wisdom of the world and turns it right on its head. To say it a little differently, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus himself is the most lavish gift of Christmas. We were in no position to earn him, to merit his coming. If you’ll permit me to say so, we were on the naughty list (to put it lightly), and yet God shed forth upon us the light of his Son. We were those in Isaiah 9 who walked in darkness, to us the grace of God has appeared (Titus 2), and we are those who need to hear the word of peace spoken by the angels of God that first Christmas.
It bears repeating: Our culture’s current mode of celebrating Christmas serves to highlight the wisdom of the world against the apparent foolishness and yet power of the Gospel. Christmas has become the supreme expression of commercialism in our society and many (most?) of us are striving so very hard during this season. Striving to make sure our own gifts measure up to the gifts of others. Striving to impress visiting family. Striving to make ends meet. On the other hand, the Scriptures tell us that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s no less true of his coming to Earth in the first place. No one called him down from glory – he came of his own accord. Jesus is the gift that we could never earn or merit, and yet God freely gave him anyway.
I guess I could sum up everything I’ve been trying to convey in this article in just a couple of verses from Romans 4: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Friends, are you in a pretend sort of Elf on the Shelf arrangement with God, working for you due to keep God in your back pocket, or have you come to see what the situation really looks like? Have you come to the end of yourself and found that it is there that the grace of God begins? Do you know yourself to be within this Gospel?
One final note for parents: don’t be afraid to parent out of confidence in the grace of God. I’ll admit – it’s harder than it sounds. The Elf on the Shelf approach is to say, “Do this or else. Period.” No doubt, our children need to learn there are consequences for their actions, but more than anything they need to hear you say, “God loves you and forgives you, and so do I.” The unmerited, unearned grace of God is the only thing in the whole wide world that can change hearts and lives. On Christmas morning, my kids will open presents not because they were always on the nice list, but because their parents love them. When we peer into the manger, and into the mystery that is Christmas, we find the same exact kind of thing at work on our behalf. All glory to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.