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.
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.