Our Greatest Gift is on the Tree

By Deacon David Wooten

The preacher had been at it for more than an hour in the TV studio.  His face was red, the vein on his forehead was throbbing, and his voice was reaching a fever pitch.  He pointed directly at the camera.

“Are you tired of sitting back and letting life happen to you?” he screamed.  “Are you tired of your teenagers being lost? Are you tired of not being able to find the ends, much less make them meet? Then why don’t you do something you’ve never done?  Why don’t you GO TO YOUR PHONE, RIGHT NOW! And say, ”˜In the name of God’s Christ, I’m gonna sow the right seed, And I’m gonna believe for a miracle!!’”  The “seed” he was talking about was money.  If people would just “plant a seed,” the preacher said, and pledge a certain amount of money to his organization, they would “reap a harvest of blessings.”  What I was watching was one of the Prosperity Gospel’s most well-known preachers at work.

Go the phone right now!

The Prosperity Gospel””also known as “name-it-and-claim-it”””is a false teaching that most people only see when flipping through TV channels.  I saw plenty of it, live, during my years attending Oral Roberts University, a school named after a man who mentored many of today’s televangelists.  Now, although many at the school did not agree with the Prosperity Gospel, many prominent preachers of that message were on the school’s Board of Regents and would preach in chapel.  We were told that we could claim physical healing of disease, cancellation of student loan debt, and a prosperous career following graduation, if we would just plant a seed””no easy task for broke college students!””into the University.

Needless to say, this shallow emphasis on material riches disillusioned many of us.  Some lost faith in God altogether because of the superficiality of prosperity preachers.  Others looked to other expressions of Christianity for a faith more firmly rooted in the humble teachings of Jesus Christ.  Dozens of us found our way into Orthodoxy, where we discovered a God who was bigger than any “wish list” that anyone could bring to Him.  We discovered a God Who didn’t owe us a thing.  More than that: we discovered a God to Whom we owed everything, and Who had already given us everything we needed.

Christ who has already given us everything

As I write this, we are in the midst of the Nativity Fast, preparing to celebrate the greatest Gift ever given to mankind: the Incarnate Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.  In this event, we see the great example for us as Christians.  St. Paul tells us that Jesus, though equal to God, emptied Himself, took on the form of a servant, and became obedient, even to the point of dying for all mankind on the Cross (Philippians 2:6-7).  What humility!  Here was the Son of God, Who could have called down tens of thousands of angels to defend Him when He was taken to be crucified, but Who laid down His life of His own will, because He knew that His Father was in control of all things, regardless of how His life unfolded.  This trust in God is what we are called to, for He is good, and He does love mankind””whether or not our lives and bank accounts happen to be the way we want them to be.

Before the celebration of our Lord’s birth, we remember the three holy youths who were thrown into a furnace for their faith in the true God.  King Nebuchadnezzar had mandated that everyone in his kingdom worship the idol he had made, and any disobedience, any worship of any other gods, would be seen as a threat to national security””the gods, after all, ensured the safety of the kingdom.  When the king threatened the three youths with death, they replied with inspiring bravery: “O Nebuchadnezzar,” they said, “we have no need to answer you in this matter.  If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your idols or worship the golden image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:12-18).

The Three Holy Youths

Fr. Thomas Hopko in his book The Winter Pascha, contrasts this unconditional faith with the petty trifling of the Prosperity Gospel:

The three young men…trusted their God in everything.  If it was His will to deliver them, they were ready for that.  But if it was His will that they should perish in the flames, they were ready for that as well!  For they believed that whatever God did, He was still the God in whom they could trust for their ultimate victory…In a word, according to the witness of the three young men, real faith and genuine trust in God makes no deals and no claims.  It is completely and totally ready, as was shown supremely in Jesus, to accept whatever the Father wills and provides, knowing that His faithful ones will never be put to shame.

As we move through the holiday season, surrounded by advertisements urging us to think only of what we can purchase, we take comfort in the fact that our guiding light during this season is not one that flashes in neon colors and tempts us to desire more stuff.  It’s not the light from the TV screen promising us superficial gifts from a cosmic Santa Claus.  Rather, our guiding light is a star that hovers over a cave in Bethlehem, showing us how much God loves us, how He lowered Himself to serve us and die for us””and how we should live our lives committed to such selfless service, as well.  Thanks be to God for the indescribable gift of His Son!