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.

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