Here is my sermon from Sunday. This is part three in our series on the Advent Conspiracy.
For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the Advent
Conspiracy and its four pillars of worshipping fully, spending less, giving
more and loving all. I went out looking
for this program, or at least something like it, because of a comment that was
made after the Thanksgiving sermon I gave five years ago. I can remember that I said one of the great
ironies of Thanksgiving is that we give thanks for what we have, give thanks
for God’s blessings in our lives, to basically say that what we have is good,
and then we go out the next day to get all the things we just said we didn’t
need. I even made an accurate prediction
that it was only a matter of time before stores were open on Thanksgiving, and
lo it came to pass. But in that message
I said that there are really only two ways we can look at what we have.
The first is to say that we are not
satisfied, that we need more stuff, and if that’s the case then we need to go
get more stuff, and we should also try and examine why we feel that way, what
purpose is the stuff serving in our lives, what is it trying to fill. Or, we can say that we are satisfied with
what we have, that we don’t need anything else, and if that is the case then we
should stop accumulating, stop buying things we don’t truly need. We need food, but we don’t need a bigger
television, we need to put gas in the car, but we don’t need to buy a new
car. The problem is that while we might
be able to stop getting more stuff for a little while, sooner or later we would
go out and start accumulating again.
It’s somehow ingrained in us, and it’s certainly pushed on us, we are
the most marketed to people in the history of the world, and as much as we
might like to claim that we are immune to it, the simple truth is we are
not. We proved that last week when you
all completed Alka Selzter’s famous commercial “I can’t believe I ate the whole
thing,” which was broadcast in 1972.
I once had a couple tell me that they didn’t have a TV in
their home for exactly that reason that they didn’t want to be constantly
influenced by advertising to buy things they didn’t need, which sounds great,
except for the fact that they drove a Jaguar.
So after I said you can either say your happy with your stuff or you’re
not, Steve came up to me and said that he had more than enough stuff, that he
didn’t need to get anything from Christmas and wondered what the church was
doing about that. Wasn’t there some
program we could run so that instead of getting more presents that we could
instead be sending that money that we were spending to some charities that we
might designate so that we could help those who were truly in need. I suspect that some of what drive Steve in
asking this question was the fact that his youngest daughter was a victim of
suicide a few years before, and so he had come to terms with what is truly
important and what is not.
And so I went out to see what churches were doing, and found
this, and at this time there were only a couple of hundred churches doing it,
and I asked a few what they thought of the program, and I was told time and
time again that it fundamentally changed Christmas for people, and what they
also said was that while they thought that the kids might have a hard time thinking
about getting less presents, or different types of presents, that the kids got
it better than the adults did, that the kids understood that this was Jesus’
birthday, that the parents struggled much more than the kids did. That’s been my experience as well, and I
really think that a lot of that has to do with the fact that children still
experience the miracle of Christmas, the magic of Christmas, they are still in
awe and wonder about Christmas and everything that goes with it, and so they
can understand doing Christmas in a fundamentally different way that’s not
jaded or full of cynicism because their Christmas experiences don’t have that
in it, it’s us as adults who have to recapture those moments, who have to
recapture the wonder and awe and miracle and magic of Christmas. Kids get it.
We are the ones who have to change.
I think that’s what Jesus was saying when he said that if you want to
enter into the kingdom of heaven that you have to be like a child, we have to
leave all that other stuff behind that we learn, that is forced onto us, that
we have to leave all that behind to truly understand the mission and message of
Christ, because it is counter-cultural, it is revolutionary, it is a conspiracy
because it subverts what the culture says is important, what society says is
important, what we are told to do and who we are told to be. It does it as much in the 21st century as it
did in the 1st century.
Last week I asked you to think about your favorite Christmas
memories, and I said that I would guess that most of them had nothing to do
with any gifts we had received. But now
I want you to think of gifts you have received.
I’m guessing that all of us have received a gift that we opened up and
we thought “wow, you don’t know me at all,” or perhaps, “wow, you didn’t put
any thought into this at all.” It’s the
ones that really pushes the idea that it’s the thought that counts. These are the gifts that are given more out
of obligation, because we think we have to give this present, than because we
want to be giving this gift. I’m
guessing that all of us have probably given at least one of those gifts as
well, and perhaps we’ll even give one this year, sometimes with the best of
intentions. I’d also ask how many of us
have regifted something, although I’m guessing that few of us would be willing
to admit it. This year Americans will
spend 602.1 billion dollars on Christmas expenditures this year, and according
to the National Retail Federation, regifting is at an all-time high, and with
so many gift cards, and the proverbial fruit cakes being given, it’s little
wonder why. So last week we also began
talking about spending less on gifts, and today we talk about giving more, and
some of you are probably saying to yourselves, “I thought that Pastor John was
supposed be good at finances, good at math, but you can’t spend less and give
more, that’s just bad math, those two things don’t add up.” But they do.
But before we get into that, why is it that we give presents at
Christmas? Why do we do what we do? I want you to turn to those around you and
have a brief conversation about why we get and give gifts at Christmas….
So what were some of the reasons you discussed? The magi gave gifts. I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking
about the magi, or the wise men today, because we’re going to cover them when
we come to their story in a few weeks, except to say that they did indeed bring
gifts. And notice who they brings the
gifts for, and to whom they give them.
They don’t get each other gifts. Balthazar
doesn’t say to Melchior, here’s a new camel for Christmas, or to Gaspar, here’s
a new flat screen TV. They give their
gifts to Jesus, not to each other. But
they do play a role in why we give gifts.
What’s another reason? God is a
giver, that’s one you’ve heard me say before, we are made in the image of God,
and God is a giver because God gave us Jesus, and so we too should be
givers. Any other reasons? What about Santa Clause? Although our modern, American understanding
and conception about Santa has much more to do with Coca-Cola’s depiction of
Santa and Clement Clarke Moore’s the Night before Christmas, there is a
historic figure in the church who is?
St. Nicholas was a 4th century bishop in what is now modern day Turkey,
which is why we have turkey for Christmas, who was known for giving gifts to
those who were in need. He also attended
the first great council of the church, the council of Nicaea, from which we get
the Nicene Creed, and was a defender of what we now consider orthodox Christianity. We get the name Santa Claus from the Dutch
word for Saint Nicholas, which was Sinterklaas, remembering that the Dutch has
a strong presence in the early colonies, and New York was originally New
Amsterdam, and so while Santa Claus may bring us presents at Christmas, he is
really a follower of Jesus.
Does anyone know the difference between a gift and a
present? By definition, to give a
present you actual have to be present, if you are not there then it is a
gift. I would like to change that definition,
that giving a present can happen even if you are not there if the present
represents your relationship with that person.
A present can be about your presence with that person, even if you are
not there when they open it; it’s about giving of ourselves. That’s what God was doing at Christmas. God was giving of God’s self, in sending
Jesus to us, Emmanuel. Which means
what? God with us. God’s presence with us. But one of the problems with giving presence
is that you are going to have to think about it, and it’s going to cost
you. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to
simply go down to Target and wander the aisles until you find something and buy
it and wrap it, then it is to think about the person and your relationship with
them. It also costs because it takes a
risk, some people aren’t going to understand what you are doing and they are
going to reject your present. They are
going to open it up and say something like “This looks like you made this,” and
of course you did, and they might say “but I spent a lot of money on your
gift,” but of course it only took them 2 minutes on Amazon.
Some people just aren’t going to get it, that’s the risk we
take, and if we waited until everyone might understand what we are doing then we
would wait forever. God took a great
risk as well, because lots of people didn’t understand what God was doing, lots
of people still don’t understand what God is doing, and they rejected
Jesus. They rejected the greatest gift
because they didn’t understand, and if God had waited and said that God would
wait until everyone was ready and able to receive to Jesus, that no one would
reject him, well we would still be waiting.
I’m sure that most of us have that gift that was made for us by a child
that we treasure, not because they spent a lot of money on it, maybe even
sometimes not because they spent a lot of time, but we treasure it because we
know where it was coming from and that it was made for us. It was relational. It was a present and presence, so what if our
gift giving looked like that?
And this isn’t about having to be artistic, sometimes it is,
but not always, there are some of us we know we would burn down the house if we
had to attach pasta to some cardboard with a glue gun. But there are different ways of doing the
same thing. Rick McKinley, one of the
cofounders of Advent Conspiracy, tells the story of a teenage boy who got his
dad a bag of his favorite coffee, but coffee he didn’t normally buy because it
was expensive. And he gave it to his
father with a note that said, you can only drink this coffee when we are
sitting down together for us to talk.
That is a gift of presence, for both parties. That is a gift in which he had to spend more,
because it’s about spending less except when we have to spend more, does that
make sense, but he spent more so that he could in turn give more. Do you think that gift said “Dad, I love you”
more than a new tie would have? Or how
about a father who gave his daughter, who was a senior in high school a blank
journal, and he also gave himself one, with the request and the promise that
they would write in it every day in this significant year of transition with
her about to leave home for the first time to go to college, of overprotective
parents, and what it means to let go, of becoming an adult and watching your
child become an adult, and then they would exchange the journals the next
Christmas. That’s a gift about
relationship. That’s a gift about presence, that’s a gift that cannot be found
on a shelf, that takes some thought and some dedication.
Sometimes you might give a gift that doesn’t really give
until years down the line. Every year on
Christmas Eve, Linda’s father read Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St.
Nicholas to her and her sisters. He died
very suddenly the same week we found out that Linda was pregnant with Samantha,
and so none of the girls ever got to participate in that tradition. What if he had made a recording of that
reading and given it to them as a gift?
That is something that would still be giving every year. Is there something like that you could be
doing? Or how about the story of Savanah
Day, a 14 year old who had brain surgery this week at Cincinnati’s Children’s
Hospital to alleviate a condition that causes spinal fluid on her brain. When Savanah found out that she would still
be in the hospital over Christmas, rather than bemoaning that fact, instead she
and her two sisters went out and collected 4000 toys for the 500 other children
who would also be in the hospital at Christmas.
'We're not going to have a Christmas,” Savanah said, “so we want to take
Christmas to everyone that's not going to have a Christmas like us.” What if we as a church took on a project like
that, to bring Christmas to every child, or to everyone, who was in the
hospital next year? What proclamation of
the good news might that bring?
And maybe some of that money that we are not spending on
Christmas, what if we gave some of it away, or even decided to give some of it
away as gifts by making a donation to a charity in someone’s name. But, and this is the most important thing
when it comes to any gift giving, it’s not about the giver, it’s about the
receiver. We often get these
confused. I’ve given gifts to Linda that
were more about me then her, and I’ve certainly received gifts like that as
well. Linda and I know someone who cares
nothing for other people except his family, and even that sometimes seems a
stretch, so me making a gift in his name to Heifer Project, a program I believe
in, is not about him, because he doesn’t care.
But he does have family in the military and so a gift to the wounded
warrior project, which helps veterans who were injured in the service, would
have some significance, and would be much more helpful than getting him another
sweater or a can of shaving cream.
Christmas is about celebrating the incarnation, God made
flesh, the birth of Jesus Emmanuel, God with us. Christmas is about relationship, it’s about
giving, it’s about presence and presents.
It’s about God with us, it’s about us with us. It’s about being present, of giving more, for
those we know and love and it’s about being present, of giving more, for those
we don’t know. We will spend 602 billion
dollars on Christmas this year. The
number one killer of people in the world is lack of access to clean, running
water, and according to UNESCO, it would take an investment of $10 billion
dollars a year for ten years to make that water available to everyone in the
world. It would take $4.5 billion to
rescue 1 million people in the world today who live in slavery, many of them
sexual slaves. It would take $6 billion
to provide basic education to everyone in the world. It would take $13 billion to provide basic
health care and nutrition to everyone in the world, and yet we will spend 602
Billion dollars on Christmas this year.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” first Isaiah, and then
Jesus say, “because it has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release
to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who
are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.” Is our gift giving, is our celebration of
Christmas, proclaiming the good news to anyone?
Is it helping the blind to receive their sight, the lame walk, the
lepers cleansed, the deaf hear, it is bring good news to the poor? “The Spirit of the Lord us upon me, it is
upon us.” But the good news is not just
about someone else, it’s about us to, for the angels say “Behold I bring you
good news… for today in the city of David a savior has been born for you. That is a personal gift, it is a present, it
is presence, and it is relational. That
is the example that has been set for us for gift giving, for Christmas giving,
it is about being relational, it is about being in relationship, it is about
presents and it is about presence. It is
about worshipping fully the babe lying in a manger so that we can understand
what it means to spend less so that we can truly understand what it means to
give more. I pray that it is so my
brothers and sisters. Amen.