A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Today’s message is the
conclusion to the “Advent Conspiracy,” a series we’ve been in for the last
several weeks to help us turn Christmas upside-down.Christmas needs to be turned upside-down,
because the greatest story in the world has been traded it in for a story of
stuff, stress, and debt.
I hope the Advent
Conspiracy has given you a different way of looking at the season and given you
an alternative to simply participating in the commercialism.I hope it’s helped to make the season less
about the stuff we give and get, and more about Jesus, the greatest gift that
money can’t buy.
The first week of the
Advent Conspiracy encouraged us to Worship Fully.Remember, the word, “worship” comes from the
Old English, “worth-ship” – meaning “to ascribe worth or value to something or
someone.”The encouragement to worship
fully invites us to find our worth and value and meaning in Jesus, rather than
in what’s under the tree.
The second week encouraged
us to Spend Less.Spending less is a way
to free ourselves from the cycle of stuff.How much of our time in December is typically devoted to the acquisition
of stuff?Time and money are precious –
let’s recover more of both by spend less on stuff.
Then, the third week
encouraged us to Give More.We spend
less so we can give more.Spend less on
our own social circle so we can give to places of great need.Christmas is the story of God’s giving – God
giving himself in Jesus – in order to bring light into darkness.As people of faith, we are called to give in
the same way.We spend less on gifts so
we can give more of ourselves – our time, our energy, our resources – into the
dark places in our world.
If you remember the
challenge I gave last week, it’s that whatever you spend at Christmas on
decorations and parties and gifts, to give the same amount into our Christmas
offering on Christmas Eve.Our Christmas
offering will be split between Greensboro Urban Ministry, which helps the most
vulnerable in our community, and the Ann Pridgen emergency fund, which helps
people in our own congregation in need.Ashley
and I will give $500 to the Christmas offering.In addition to what we spend on our friends and families, join us in
giving a gift that brings the light of God’s love to the dark corner of someone
That brings us to the
fourth corner of the Advent Conspiracy we’ll explore today – Love All.This should be the easy one.If love really is the point, let’s just skip
all the preaching and the planning and be good to each other.Is that so hard?Surprisingly, it is.If Diana Ross has taught us
anything, it’s that love love don’t come
If love was easy, I’d be
out of a job tomorrow.And while I
appreciate the job security, I’d much rather live in a world where love came
naturally to all of us.We know that Jesus
told us to love one another, which is easier said than done.
Just ask Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.Joseph’s story is one that is told too seldom
and celebrated too little.Joseph is one
of the greatest stories of faith and love found in the whole of Scripture, and
yet Joseph is often an afterthought, an asterisk, a footnote at Christmas.Let’s look at a piece of his story – turn in
your Bibles to the 1st Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, verses
18 This is how
the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to
Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph
her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he
decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was
thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and
said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because
the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She
will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his
people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that
what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become
pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel.
means “God with us.”)
Joseph gets a backseat in
the Christmas story is because we all know he’s not the real father of
Jesus.In our time, the whole scene
could play out on an episode of The Jerry
Springer Show, and the name of the episode would be, “Who’s Your Daddy?”
with DNA tests to determine the paternity of Jesus.Incidentally, I’ve always thought The Jerry Springer Show could do one
such episode specifically for residents of Indiana, and they could name the
episode “Hoosier Daddy.”
Back to Mary and
Joseph.Person 1 plus Person 2 equals
Person 3, just the same now as then, and Joseph knows he played no part in the
equation.The math hasn’t changed, and
so Joseph reaches the only logical conclusion available – that some other
person played his part.
The penalty for such an
indiscretion could be as severe as death by stoning, depending how far Joseph
wanted to push it.At the least, it
called for public shame and humiliation of the woman involved.Here’s the first place Joseph shows us that
love is a choice.He resolves to dismiss
Mary quietly – not making a public spectacle of her, not shaming her, not
subjecting her to the condemnation of the whole community.
We don’t really know his
motivation, and we don’t have to.We
simply know that he chose the path of compassion over
condemnation.That’s what love does.
Joseph chooses to love a
woman who is carrying a baby that’s not his.Joseph chooses to raise that baby as his own.Joseph chooses to love that baby.Joseph is every bit a father to Jesus as if
he were his own flesh and blood.He
demonstrates that you don’t have to be biologically related to someone to love
The holy family of Jesus,
Mary, and Joseph is not bound together by biology or blood.This holy family is the family of God, a
family to which we also belong, and it is joined together by love and grace.The family of God, like Joseph, chooses
compassion over condemnation.
Joseph practices compassion even before he knows the whole story.Even early on, when he thinks Mary has
committed some indiscretion, he shows compassion by dismissing her instead of
publicly humiliating her.Joseph’s
default setting is to be compassionate even when he doesn’t know the whole
story.He doesn’t wait for the facts to
come in and then decide whether or not to be compassionate, he doesn’t weigh
the evidence to decide if Mary is worthy
or deserving of his love.In many ways the facts of what exactly
happened to Mary and how she became pregnant are immaterial to Joseph, because
he is going to show her unconditional compassion.
That sounds a lot like
God’s love and grace.Joseph’s life is
marked by selfless, sacrificial love that so closely resembles the character
and love of God – and that is what
makes him a righteous man.
I can see in Jesus traits of his heavenly father, and
his earthly father.Don’t tell me that
Joseph’s lifestyle of choosing compassion over condemnation didn’t have some
influence on Jesus as he grew up.Yes,
Jesus is Love because God is Love, but growing up in a house filled with the
kind of love embodied by Joseph also had tremendous influence.
During Jesus’ ministry,
when he comes across a crowd confronting a woman caught in adultery, when they
are on intent on stoning her, perhaps Jesus thought about his own mother, and
his own earthly father who didn’t have her stoned to death in a similar
situation, as he told the crowd, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone”?
Jesus grew up in a
household where unqualified compassion was practiced, where grace was extended
unconditionally, a house whose rule was to love first and ask
questions later – Jesus lived and practiced that same compassion and grace and
love throughout his life – and thank God he did.Romans 5:8 tells us, “God shows his love for
us in this way: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”Though we were sinners, though we were
rebellious, though we had done nothing to earn or deserve anything, Christ gave
himself on our behalf.Friends, that’s
what love does.Love is to have a
default toward compassion over condemnation.
Like Joseph.In Joseph’s dream, the angel tells him that
Jesus will be known as “Emmanuel,” which
means “God with us.”Not God is judging us,
not God is condemning us, not God is reprimanding us, not God is against us.
His name matters – we worship a God who is with us in every way.
Christmas is nothing less
than the celebration of God’s love in the world.Emmanuel: “God is with us,” and if God is Love, Christmas means “Love is with us.”
Friends – “Love is with
us.”There is no greater good news I
could give you – “Love is with us!” Love is with us!Jesus is God’s love with a human face!The birth of Jesus means God’s love is with
us!Jesus is the greatest gift we have
ever received.The point of this whole
season is that God’s love has come to us.And,
if love is the point, then it is not enough to sit in a church service, sing
some songs and go home.
No –the Christmas season is our call
todemonstrate compassion over condemnation, like Joseph,
like Jesus, like God.We are part of a
family who loves first and asks questions later.
Are you familiar with the practice of re-gifting?You didn’t like something or it was the wrong
size or you already had one, and so you gave it to someone else?Be honest, anyone here ever re-gift
This year, what if we
re-gift Jesus?In a sense, that’s what
the people of faith are always called to do – to receive God’s love and grace
and forgiveness, and then to offer that love and grace and forgiveness to
others.So this year, let’s re-gift
Jesus – not because you didn’t like him, not because he’s not your style, not
because he doesn’t fit – re-gift Jesus because you enjoyed him so much you
can’t keep him to yourself.
This year, re-gift Jesus
by loving all.
Maybe there’s someone in
your circle you have a hard time loving.Maybe someone in your family or your neighborhood or at work or in your
church who annoys you simply by opening their mouth – maybe that’s who God is
calling you to love.
Maybe you have a hard time
loving people who’ve done you wrong.Maybe your ex, maybe your boss or a co-worker, maybe someone in your
family.Maybe there’s a broken
relationship somewhere that needs some reconciliation and healing and
forgiveness – maybe that’s who God is calling you to love.
Maybe you have a hard time
loving people you don’t know.On one
hand, I hear that you want the church to grow.On the other hand, I hear that you want to know everybody.What I want you to see is that we can grow,
which means everyone won’t know everyone.Or, everyone can know everyone, which means we are done growing.Plain and simple: we can know, OR we can grow.But at this point in our history, we can no
longer do both.
Everyone knowing everyone
is a good thing.That’s why it’s hard to
let go of.But everyone knowing Jesus is
a God-thing.The hardest choices we can
make as a church are those in which we are asked to let go of a good thing in
order to grasp a God-thing.
Sometimes our desire to
know everyone is actually more about us than about others.Because, if I know everyone, then everyone
also knows me.But, research indicates
that most people need 10-15 meaningful relationships beyond their family to
feel connected to a larger group.10-15
people they know, and who know them.10-15 people who care about them and will be there for them.Everyone doesn’t need to know everyone, so
long as everyone is known by someone.
So, love people you don’t
know, love them enough to be willing that they might not know you, do that to
embrace the God-thing of people knowing Jesus.
This Christmas, Love all.People who are difficult to love, people we
don’t even know.Joseph loved Jesus
before he knew him.Jesus loved us
before we knew him.Jesus loves
all.Let’s re-gift Jesus by sharing his
love in the same way.
Love like Jesus, a love he
learned from both his heavenly father AND his earthly father.
·Love like Jesus –
demonstrate compassion over condemnation.
·Love like Jesus –
love first and ask questions later.
Jesus and Joseph weren’t
related by biology or blood, but Joseph was every bit a “real” father to Jesus.The love Jesus embodied and taught was
inherited from both his father in heaven, and his father on earth.
The pressure to find the perfect Christmas gift goes
back to the very first Christmas.Don’t
take my word for it, just ask The Little Drummer Boy.Jesus is only a few hours old, and already
the social pressure to find the perfect gift is beating down on him as steady
as that haunting “rum pum pum pum” throughout the song.Jesus is still in the manger, and already a
competition is underway about who will give the best gift.Some of the other guests have brought gold,
and frankincense, and myrrh, and the Drummer Boy comes up with the brilliant
idea to play on his drum, “rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum.”
What a lousy gift.Who bangs on a drum for a baby?What mother says, “Yeah, that’s an
appropriate gift for a baby!”?Yeah,
yeah, yeah, it’s a sweet story about a boy who had nothing of monetary value to
give and so he banged away on his drum for a baby, and it’s a beautiful gift
because it came from the heart and it’s all he had to give, but let’s just go
ahead and name the gift for what it was – a total dud, or perhaps a total thud.
There is a history of giving bad gifts at
Christmas.Expensive for the giver,
maybe; awkward for the recipient, likely, and the only one who appreciates the
gift is the retailer who sold it.
Welcome to week 3 of the
Advent Conspiracy.Recognizing the mess
that Christmas has become in our culture, we are turning Christmas upside-down.
The conspiracy began with
the encouragement for us to Worship Fully: to surrender our hearts and lives to
Jesus.Too often during Advent and
Christmas, we find ourselves worshiping the gods of What’s-Under-the-Tree and
invites us to find our meaning and purpose in Jesus.
Last week, we looked at
how spending less on gifts can help us focus more on God.Christmas is about the stuff because we make
it about the stuff.Most of us have more
than enough stuff.Our closets are
jam-packed with stuff.We can’t park our
cars in our garages because we have too much stuff.We rent storage units where we keep all the
rest of the stuff that won’t fit in our houses.
Too often, we complain
about how materialistic our kids and grandkids are, while we buy them all the
material stuff they ask for.But, if we
really want to pass on different values, how about we change our behavior, and
But then, what if we gave
more?Maybe you’re thinking, “You just
told us to spend less, and now you’re telling us to give more?”That’s right.Spending less isn’t a goal in and of itself.Giving more is the other side of the coin of
spending less.Spending less allows us
to give more.
Like God does.If you have your Bibles, turn with me to John
Chapter 1.I invite you to stand for the
reading of the Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God. 2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 3 Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.
What came into being 4 through the Word was life,
and the life was the light for all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
14 The Word
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.
These opening lines of
John’s Gospel are a different take on the Christmas story.Whereas Matthew and Luke begin with narrative
about people, places, and events, John begins with theology about who Jesus is
and always has been in relation to God, moving quickly to who Jesus is in
relation to us.
It’s a story of giving.The tradition of giving at Christmas is
rooted in the reality that God gives at Christmas.But God doesn’t give stuff.God gives more – God gives himself.
In the beginning was the Word.“The Word” comes from the Greek, logos, and it means the eternal
self-expression of God.“The Word” here
refers to Jesus Christ.
Think of it this way: we
use words to express ourselves.We
write, we speak, we use words.When God
wants to express something, God also uses words: words of scripture, words of
prophets, words of teachers and preachers, words of wise friends, words of
songs and poems, and indeed, all of these words tell us a bit about who God is
and what God desires.But, all of these
words pale in comparison to “The Word,” who is Jesus.God’s greatest expression is not in words but
in “The Word.”
“The Word of God” is a
person, not a book.“The Word of God” is
Jesus.God’s clearest self-expression is
in Jesus.If you want to see God, get a
good look at Jesus.But as long as
Jesus, “The Word” remained in Heaven, we’d never have that opportunity.
And so, the Word became flesh and made his home among us.Jesus, God himself, took on our humanity with
all its frailties and brokenness and weakness and pain, and moved into our
world.Why does that matter so
much?Because, on our own, we humans can
make a real mess of things.Given to our
own devices, we can be selfish and corrupt, using violence and injustice to
serve ourselves at the expense of others.Without God, the world can be a pretty dark place.
And so, God comes to us in
the person of Jesus, who takes on our flesh, who moves into our world and makes
his home with us.Jesus comes to us as
light in our darkness, and though the darkness is real, it cannot overcome the
light of Christ.God gives his very
presence to us in Jesus; if you want to see God, get a good look at Jesus.If you want to see God’s heart, God’s love,
God’s will, God’s desire, get up close and personal with Jesus.We can best understand and know and relate to
God by understanding and knowing and relating to Jesus.
It’s a story of
giving.The tradition of giving at
Christmas is rooted in the reality that God gives at Christmas.But God doesn’t give stuff.God gives more – God gives himself.
When I think back to the best gifts I’ve received, all
of them have some significant connection with the giver – gifts that were given
as if the presence of that person was also part of the gift.
When Ashley and I got
married, we had a small, intimate wedding with 525 guests.You can imagine that receiving gifts was part
of what happened in that.We got a lot
of stuff – some of it very nice stuff, most of it stuff we wanted.
As we opened our gifts, we
carefully kept a list of what we received and who gave it to us so we could
thank them.One of our favorite gifts
was from some retired friends of ours who also are a clergy couple.The gift was their collection of liturgical accessories they had used and worn in their
ministry together, and they gave them to us in the hopes that we would use them
as they had.
They have very little
monetary value, yet to this day they remain among our most prized possessions,
because they represent both the love and trust of these friends of ours, as we
use them when we lead worship together as they once did.We think of them every time we put them on,
it is as if they are present with us every time we use them.
Friends, that’s what makes
for a good gift.When some piece of the
giver comes along with the gift, when the giver is present with us in the
gave himself to the world.God gave his
very presence in Jesus Christ – as people of faith, what if we gave the same
way this Christmas?
We make a living by what
we get.The question that defines Christmas for too many of us is
“What did you get?”What if we defined
the significance of our Christmas with a different question – “What did you
The scriptures say it is
more blessed to give than receive.In my
experience, that’s true.For Ashley’s
birthday in October, I gave her the surprise of
staying in a suite with a private balcony overlooking the Grand Canyon, when
she thought we were staying at the Motor Lodge ½ a mile away.I can’t tell you how excited I was to give
her that gift.As the giver, I think I
derived greater joy from planning that gift, anticipating that gift, surprising
her with that gift than she had in receiving that gift, although, let’s be
honest, she was pretty happy and nominated be for husband-of-the-year, and I
don’t mind telling you, but I think I’ve got a pretty good shot!
It’s fun to give!It’s more blessed to give than to receive.Why?Because
God’s a giver.God so loved the world HE GAVE his Son.It doesn’t get much more generous than that!God is a generous giver, and we are made in
God’s image.So when we give, we reflect
the image of God, which brings glory to God.The more generously we give, the more we reflect God’s image, and the
more God is glorified.What is a greater
blessing than to reflect God’s image and glorify God?
God is a giver, and we are
made in God’s image.It is more blessed
to give than receive.As people of
faith, we are called this Christmas to give as God gives.
One of the ways we’ll be
giving more as a church is through our Christmas offering.Our Christmas offering will be split between Greensboro
Urban Ministry, which helps the most vulnerable in our greater community, and
the Ann Pridgen Emergency Fund, a fund of our church that helps members in
And so here’s my challenge to you for our Christmas offering: whatever you
spend on Christmas, give an equal amount to the Christmas offering.If you spend $500 on gifts and parties and
decorations, give $500 to the Christmas offering.If you spend $100, give $100; if you spend
$1000, give $1000.You get the picture.
The entirety of what is given on Christmas Eve will go into our Christmas
offering.Christmas is the story of
God’s greatest gift to the world, and so as you prepare to come to church on
Christmas Eve to celebrate that gift, to give thanks and worship the One who
gave you that gift, to consider how the presence of God in Christ has brought
light into the darkness of your world, bring a gift to help put the light of
Christ into the darkness of someone else’s world.
Be sure to tell
everyone you know that we’re giving away the Christmas Eve offering as our way
of spreading some light in the darkness and making a real difference in the
My experience is that people want to be part of something that makes a
positive difference.People want to be
part of a church that thinks more of others than it does of itself.Let’s show that we’re that kind of a
church.Let’s be the light God has
called us to be.
If you won’t be here Christmas Eve, you can make your Christmas offering
any Sunday in December – just mark “Christmas offering” on the memo or on the
outside of your envelope.As we spend
less on ourselves, our families, and friends, we will give more to those in the
The idea behind “Giving
More” is not to give more stuff to those who already have lots of stuff.Jesus wasn’t born so we could all have
stuff.Jesus wasn’t born so that who
already have lots of stuff can have even more.The idea behind “Giving More” is to give more of ourselves.To give more of our time, our experience, our
At Christmas, God
gave.He gave himself in the person of
Jesus.He gave light into darkness.
We spend less so we can
give more.We spend less on stuff so we
can give more of ourselves.We spend
less on presents, so we can give more of our presence, and spread God’s light
to the places of greatest darkness.
Who here has finished all
their Christmas shopping?
I don’t mean to cause
alarm, but you only have 15 shopping days left until Christmas.Not to put the pressure on, but only 15 days
to find those perfect gifts for your friends and family.If there are certain in-demand toys this year
and you haven’t bought them yet, you’re already out of luck.Every day you delay means the stores will
become more picked over, less for you to choose from, the chances of you
finding that perfect gift are decreasing with the passing of each precious
minute of shopping time.The stores will
become more crowded, the parking less available, the shoppers more desperate,
the clerks more stressed and worn out.Tick tock!Tick tock!Can’t you just feel the seconds ticking away,
and your anxiety rising with each passing second?
I should just cancel the
rest of the service and let you out now so we can all head to the mall where we
all belong this time of year.You all
know that the stakes are high in finding that perfect gift.Get the wrong toy for your children or
grandchildren, and they will likely never talk to you again.Wrong sweater, wrong size, kiss your sister
goodbye.Tools your brother already
has?He’s gone too. Useless gift card
for Grandma?Prepare to be disowned and
written out of the will.
We all know that what we
spend on Christmas has eternal consequences.Get the gift right, and we will be loved and adored forever.Get the gift wrong, and we will be friendless
and alone for the rest of our lives.
Not the message you
expected when you came to church, was it?I figured if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Welcome to week 2 of the
Advent Conspiracy.Recognizing the mess
that Christmas has become in our culture, we are turning Christmas upside-down
and recovering its true meaning, because when Christmas
is celebrated the right way, it still has the potential to change the world,
beginning with changing each of us.
The conspiracy began last
week with the encouragement for us to Worship Fully: to surrender our hearts
and lives to Jesus, to seek him, and to expect to be changed and transformed as
a result.Indeed, we worship Jesus
because he was born into the mess of our world and changed it and transformed
it and redeemed it – and we believe that Jesus can, will, and is transforming
our world still today.
Worshiping fully allows us
to find our identity and purpose in Jesus.Too often during Advent and Christmas, we find ourselves worshiping at
the altars of Best Buy and Toys-R-Us, the gods of What’s-Under-the-Tree and
What’s-In-It-For-Me.We get fooled into
thinking contentment and meaning are found in presents bought and exchanged,
even though we know better.Consider the
announcement that accompanied Jesus’ birth, recorded in the Gospel according to
Luke, the 2nd chapter, verses 8-14. I invite you to stand for the reading of the
shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The
Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they
10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news
to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is
born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a
sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a
manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces
was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in
heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
Glory to God and peace, no
from presents, but from the presence of Jesus.That brings us to the second tenet of the Advent Conspiracy we’re
looking at today: “Spend Less.”
This Christmas, American
consumers will spend $450,000,000,000 (that’s billion with a “b”) on
Christmas. Most of that will be on gifts, because everyone
knows that the meaning of Christmas, once we’ve sung Silent Night and lit a candle on Christmas Eve, is all about the
bling.It’s about the swag, the stuff,
the gifts.Don’t take my word for it:
“What Did You Get Video
During Advent and
Christmas, we people of faith find ourselves living in two different worlds and
speaking out of both sides of our mouths at the same time – denouncing and
criticizing the commercialization and consumerism of Christmas, while we
participate in it ourselves.
We know there’s more to
the season and each year we promise ourselves a more Christ-centered and less
commercial Christmas, but we’re also afraid to disappoint our friends and
family who might be expecting certain gifts from us.Maybe we don’t want to appear cheap or stingy
or Scrooge-like, maybe we really are afraid they won’t love us as much if we
don’t get them good gifts.Meanwhile,
our friends and family are afraid of disappointing us, and so they’re out
buying stuff for us while we’re buying stuff for them – stuff none of us needs,
and probably don’t even want.
As people of faith, we
know it should be different, but the cultural expectations are just too much,
and we cave every year.We celebrate two
Christmases – the religious one at church about Jesus and the shepherds and
whatnot, and a secular one at home that’s all about the gifts.
We blame culture as a
whole or the greedy retailers who put out the Christmas merchandise a little
earlier each year, but they wouldn’t put it out if we didn’t buy it.The Christmas shopping season traditionally
began the day after Thanksgiving, with doors opening at 6am, and then 3am, and
then midnight.They experimented with
Thanksgiving evening, and now we’re seeing more and more stores open most of
Thanksgiving day, but again, they wouldn’t be open if we didn’t show up to go
It’s interesting social
commentary that the word “holiday” originally meant, “holy day.”When stores are open on the Thanksgiving
holiday, it sends a clear message about what is holy to us, and what we who
shop on such a day actually worship.
Jesus said you can’t serve
two masters.You can’t serve God and
money – or the stuff that money buys.You can’t serve God and gifts.If
you want Christmas to be more about God in your home, in your family, in your
social circle, in you – make Christmas less about the gifts.
Think of it this way: if
you attend church every Sunday in December, that’s four hours of worship.Go ahead and give yourself credit for the
choir program and one of the Christmas Eve services: six hours of worship all
together in December.Most of us will spend
far more time than that on gifts – driving to the stores, shopping, waiting in
line, driving home, hiding the gifts, wrapping the gifts, opening the gifts,
driving to the store the day after Christmas to return and exchange the gifts.
Six hours in worship for
God, countless hours on gifts – what message are we sending about which is most
important to us?Let’s stop scratching
our heads about where our kids and grandkids and the culture as a whole got the
idea that Christmas is about the stuff – they learned it from us.
You can’t worship God and
money.You can’t worship God and
gifts.Make Christmas more about God by
making it less about the gifts.Make Christmas
more about God by spending less.
Be honest, do you remember
the first gift you received for Christmas last year?How about the fourth gift?What about the 10th gift?Most of us give and get things for Christmas
we just don’t need, and here, a year later, probably don’t even remember.
Christmas gifts give us a
joy that lasts about as long as it takes to throw away all the wrapping
paper.So, what if we spent less this
year?What if we spent less on our
families, on our friends, on ourselves?What if we spent less to buy things for people who are buying us things?What if we bought one less gift?What if we spent half of what we planned to
on gifts?What if we had a conversation
with our families and said, “We already have more than we need, why don’t we just
stop giving these gifts to each other?”
And then, with that extra
time you now have that you didn’t spend shopping, what if you spent that time
with those you love, enjoying their company?What if, together, you went and did something to give hope to someone
else who needs it?All that money you
didn’t spend on gifts, what if you gave it somewhere it could really make a
Christmas can still change
the world, folks, especially when we recognize that peace and contentment
isn’t found in our stuff.It’s not found
in purchases and packages.Turn all of
that upside-down and Christmas can begin to look more like what the angel said
to the shepherds – good news – wonderful, joyous news for all people.If Christmas is about the gifts, then it’s
good news only for the people who can afford the nicest stuff.
Christmas must be good
news not only for the wealthy and the privileged and the powerful. Not only for those with means, or abilities,
or connections.Not only for those with
the resources to purchase good gifts for one another. The birth of Jesus was
good news for all – starting with the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.
With all the asking of
“What did you get?” this Christmas, will we focus on stuff, or on God?Gifts that money can’t buy – like hope, and
peace, and joy, and love?Gifts of grace
and forgiveness, gifts of the very presence of God-with-us in Jesus, his
continuing presence in the gifts of bread and the fruit of the vine – his very
self, given for us and for the world?
The greatest gift at
Christmas is Christ himself.Spending
more at Christmas does not bring us happiness.It doesn’t make our lives meaningful.It doesn’t give us hope, or peace, or joy, despite what the commercials
promise us.The Advent Conspiracy
invites us to acknowledge this reality, to get off the merry-go-round of giving
This Advent and Christmas,
let’s spend less on gifts – to stop looking for peace in our purchases, to find it in
the greatest gift that money can’t buy.
If I were to say the word,
“Christmas” – what other words or images come immediately to mind?
I continued a spirit of
Thanksgiving on Friday, as we put out our Christmas decorations.I am thankful for pre-lit artificial
Christmas trees that come in three sections, and can be set up and ready to
decorate in less than 10 minutes.I am
thankful for Pandora radio playing Christmas music as we decorated.I am thankful for the good people over at 3M
who make all-weather self-adhesive hooks that make hanging the outside lights
so much easier than it used to be.
I am thankful for the
family and friends who will come through our home during the holiday season,
and I hope you all will come to our home on Tuesday evening for our annual
holiday open house!
The season carries with it
a certain Norman Rockwellishness – postcard perfect Christmas trees,
fireplaces, greenery, rosy-faced children, perfect family meals.That picture of Christmas will be reinforced
in every television commercial, department store display, and Southern Living
Welcome to the Advent
Conspiracy.It’s that picture perfect
version of Christmas we’re going to turn upside-down over the next four
weeks.In that perfect picture, we don’t
see the stress and debt hiding just out of sight.The rampant consumerism.The families who feel the pain and grief of a
loved one who won’t be at their table this year.If Christmas is nothing more than Clark
Griswold light displays and Martha Stewart centerpieces, then friends, that’s
not a good thing.Far from perfect, the
real picture of Christmas for many includes pain and brokenness and
Then again, the real Christmas
story includes its fair share of pain and brokenness and dysfunction.Consider these words from St. Matthew’s
Gospel, the 2nd Chapter, verses 1-16. Please stand for the reading of the Gospel:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of
Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They
asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east,
and we’ve come to honor him.”
3 When King
Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with
him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts
and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said,
“In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.”
7 Then Herod
secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had
first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and
search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I
too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they
went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it
stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the
star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and
saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him.
Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold,
frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream
not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
13 When the
magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and
said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there
until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill
him.” 14 Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child
and his mother to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died.
This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.
16 When Herod
knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all
the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two
years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.
This is Christmas, not
brought to you by Hallmark, but by Herod.The story begins in a surprising and uncomfortable place.Quite a start for what is supposed to be “the
most wonderful time of the year.”As I
read the final two lines of that passage, where Herod murders all the children
under the age of two, how many of you winced and had difficulty saying, “Thanks be
to God”?I know I did.
It is an uncomfortable
place to begin the Christmas story, but a necessary one.If the world were as perfect as our family
Christmas letters and photos, then there would have been no need for Jesus to
come in the first place.But the world
can be a pretty painful and messed up place sometimes – where the wicked
prosper and the innocent suffer – and this
is the world Jesus came into.
King Herod – he was
bloodthirsty and power-hungry.He is
paranoid, always looking over his shoulder for someone to come and unseat him
from his claim to power.He has his own
wife and several of his sons killed because he perceives them as a threat to
his own power.
The people suffered under Herod. The people are tired,
hungry, and depressed.They are
oppressed, crushed down by the brutality.They are in desperate need of hope, hope that seems to be nowhere at
hand, hope that seems like a far-away dream, hope that is flickering and
You ever been in that
place – where hope is all but faded?You’ve gotten to the end of the tunnel, and there is no light, as
promised?The Christmas story starts in
the same place.
But then, news of a new
king.A king who will liberate, who will
set them free, who will usher in a new regime of peace and justice – the news
of this king is the hope they were looking for all along.
Herod hears this news,
too.Good news to the people, not such
good news to Herod.A new king?That’s a threat to his power.And so Herod sets out to eliminate the
threat, namely, the baby.Better to
destroy the baby now than to let him grow up and raise an army against Herod.
But there’s a problem –
Herod has heard that a new king has been born, but he doesn’t know which baby
is the king.And he can’t find the baby,
because everyone he sends is so moved, so inspired, so changed by their
encounter with this baby, this king, this Messiah, this face of God in human
flesh, that they don’t return to Herod, because they cannot take part in
allowing Herod to destroy something so wondrous.
Those who have a chance to
see the face of Jesus know they have seen the face of God, and they bow in
worship.The shepherds, the magi, even
the angels cannot stop singing God’s praise.
Herod becomes increasingly
frustrated as no one returns to him to tell him where to find the baby, but
hell-bent on destroying the threat to his power, he does what any reasonable,
bloodthirsty, tyrant would do – he orders the murder of every child in the
region under the age of two, obviously not knowing that Joseph and Mary have
fled with the child he so desperately seeks to destroy, ruthlessly slaughtering
the innocent children.
Why do we begin here?Because Jesus comes into a pretty messed-up
world.The Christmas story begins in a
dark and hopeless place.Death, pain,
illness, anger, frustration, depression, and doubt are very real in our world,
and to many of us.Jesus does not come
to a postcard perfect place; no, Jesus takes on the worst this broken world has
to offer in order to redeem it, to transform it, and to make something new with
That is Christmas – God
breathing new life into what is broken through Jesus.Though neither our family nor home should be
featured in a magazine, at Christmas, Jesus gives us the chance to say we are
imperfect, and it’s ok!
Christmas is not a time to
fake it ‘til we make it to January.Not
a time to pretend we’ve got it all together, pull off the perfect holiday
parties, have the perfect tree, find the perfect gifts.
Christmas is a time to
recognize how deeply we do need Jesus.Jesus enters the world at its place of deepest need.He enters our life the same way.
Jesus is born into this
mess.Jesus came into this world and
experienced the same pain that keeps us up at night – the same worries, the
same fears, the same frustrations.The
things that make us weep cause him to weep to.Our lack of peace, our lack of justice, things in the world that just
aren’t right – Jesus sees, Jesus experiences, Jesus grieves as we do.
When we think of Jesus
experiencing suffering, we immediately go to the cross, but we cannot forget
that his suffering starts in the beginning.In the back alley of Bethlehem, where an unmarried teenage mother gave
birth to him, and had to deal with the shame and stigma that must have carried.
Jesus shares in the pain
of the mothers and fathers who mourned the loss of their children, simply
because Herod wanted him dead, and with mothers and fathers today who mourn the
loss of their children.
Jesus shares in the pain
of injustice.Jesus shares in the pain
of racism and discrimination.Jesus
shares in the pain of homophobia and intolerance.Jesus shares in the pain of corruption and
fear.Jesus shares in the pain of
division and destruction.It’s all part
of the story he came into, and all part of the story he can yet redeem.
Advent is a conspiracy
because Herod and all those in power know that Jesus is bringing a power that
will change everything, and people will no longer reliant on worldly power, or
wealth.An identity not tied up in what
we buy or where we live.Not in our
status or schooling, not in our popularity or privilege, not in our rank or
rights – Advent is a conspiracy because all those worldly labels and thrones
are turned upside-down when we give our lives over to Jesus and find our
meaning in him.
Like shepherds, like angels, like the magi – we are invited to bow before Jesus, to surrender our lives to him, to give him first place in our hearts and lives.Truth be told, we do worship fully during Advent and Christmas, but we worship the god of BestBuy and the god of Toys-R-Us and the god of Target.We worship the god of what’s on sale and the god of what’s for dinner.We worship the god of what’s under the tree and what’s in it for me.We’ve all looked for hope
elsewhere, and we’ve come up short every time.
The Advent conspiracy
begins with two words: “Worship Fully.”This
Advent, I invite you to follow the lead of the Magi, and run faster to Jesus
than we do to our Christmas trees on Christmas morning.To find our identity and meaning in Jesus, to
allow our lives to be shaped more by him than by what we bought or what we got.
Christmas about us instead of about Jesus.Our search for all that perfection, if we’re honest, is about us.
Worship is about God.John Wesley published rules for singing – he
had rules for everything, methods, if you will, part of the reason we are people
called “Methodists.”Those rules are
printed in the front of our hymnal, and you should take a look at them
sometime.I won’t go into them all
today, but rule #5:
5. Above all, sing
spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him
more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly
to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with
the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the
Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
“Have an eye to God” in
all we do in worship. Aim at pleasing God more than ourselves and more than
others in worship. Offer our hearts to God continually. That’s worship.
It is so easy for us to become
consumers of worship just like we consume everything else. It’s easy for us to
slip into a “the customer is always right” mindset when we’re worshipping,
where we’re the customers and God is the salesclerk. Of course, I want you all
to find our worship time together meaningful and engaging. But, not just because you “liked” the music,
or “liked” the sermon.
The goal of worship to be
a place where God can transform our hearts and souls, where God can invite us
into a life of discipleship and you can learn to be ready to respond, “Yes.”
Worship is for God. When worship is
about something other than giving our hearts to God, it is just another kind of
idolatry. Worship is saying yes to God.
This Advent, I invite you
to worship fully.When the magi
worshipped Jesus, when they came face-to-face with God-in-flesh, they were so
overcome that something within them changed.They changed.Everything
about them changed.They even went
home by a different route – they changed their plans and changed their path
because of Jesus!
That’s what it is to
worship fully – to come face to face with the holy and to be changed as a
result.To choose another path.To go another way.This Advent, how is your life different
because of Jesus?How have your plans and
the path of your life changed because of Him?
How can your life be different from now on?
How can you worship more
fully, instead of coming to worship out of a sense of duty or obligation, but
with your heart and mind prepared for a life-changing encounter with Jesus?How can your concept of worship move beyond
what takes place for an hour or two on Sunday morning, and instead become a
lifestyle of seeking and surrendering to Christ?
This Advent, seek Jesus
like you never have before.Worship