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.