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.
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
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