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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent Conspiracy: Love All (Matthew 1:18-23)


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 else’s world.

 

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 easy.

 

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 18-23:

 

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.

(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 them.

 

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 to demonstrate 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 something?

 

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.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Advent Conspiracy: Give More (John 1:1-5,14)

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 What’s-In-It-For-Me.  Worshiping fully 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 spend less?

 

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.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.
What came into being
    through the Word was life,
    and the life was the light for all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

14 The Word became flesh
    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 gift.  God 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 give?”

 

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 financial crisis.

 

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 world.

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 greatest need.

 

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 attention.

 

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.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Advent Conspiracy - Spend Less (Luke 2:8-14)


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 Gospel:

 

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

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:

 

Target “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 shopping.

 

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 difference?

 

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 and getting.

 

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.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully (Matthew 2:1-16)


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 article.

 

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 dysfunction.

 

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. 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.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

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.

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 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.” 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 fading.

 

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 it.

 

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.

 

We make 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 Fully.