Advent Conspiracy - Week 3: "Spend Less"
Today is the Third Sunday of the season of Advent, and the third installment of our sermon series for the season of Advent--The Advent Conspiracy.
The whole purpose of the Advent Conspiracy is to re-frame this time of year from a Christian perspective and to get people to stop buying into the consumerism that dominates the season. When we do, we find that we are able to live more relationally and use our money to do something worthwhile--to help build the kingdom of God.
Give More, Spend Less, Worship Fully and Love All.
Let's learn today why it's important to Spend Less.
Every year at Christmastime my family sacrifices a few Christmas ornaments in the name of progress---or carelessness, to be more precise.
When you have kids, these things happen. Adults are pretty adept at smashing ornaments, but kids make it an Olympic sport.
Some time ago, in order to avoid Armageddon-like activity with our ornaments, we determined that the bottom portion of our Christmas tree needed to be filled with ornaments that were unbreakable, homemade, stuffed animals and the like.
Somehow, the kids always seem to find a way to break at least one ornament and one year my littlest boy managed to break one of the unbreakable ones.
When a Christmas ornament (especially one that has some sentimental value) breaks it's a sickening moment. When it hits the floor with that tell-tale crunch, everyone freezes at the sound of it and slowly turns their heads to find out which one bought it.
I think that when we shatter a Christmas ornament that is meaningful for us, one that contains a memory if you will, we kind of think that the memory just might shatter with it. Even though we know that it doesn't work that way, it sort of feels like it.
Not to get too strange about it, but it's almost as if we grieve the loss of a broken ornament because it reminds us that the moment it represented is gone just like the shards of broken glass we're sweeping up.
And all of this is another reminder that stuff wears down, breaks, and is just... well, stuff. If we want to get at the truth of Christmas, and the truth of the goodness of Christmas we have to look beyond stuff.
Here's the thing, when I think of my most memorable Christmas memories, I don't really think of the stuff I got. I think of moments. Moments when my family and I were together when there was laughter, joy, love, and warmth.
I remember sitting in the back of a car smashed between my cousin and my mom as we drove around looking at Christmas lights on a frigid Christmas Eve.
I remember waking up on Christmas morning and smelling breakfast cooking and knowing that it was Christmas, which was just about the best thing in the world.
I remember family Christmas dinners, singing around a piano and everyone from out of town sleeping all over the house.
I remember the first Christmas Eve that my wife and I spent together before we were married. We went to a late night candlelight service at a Methodist church in her hometown. When we began to sing "We Three Kings" I sang under my breath to her, "We three kings of Orient are... tried to smoke a rubber cigar... it was loaded, it exploded..." We spent the rest of the service laughing, and upsetting the worshippers.
I remember all of the wonderful, magical Christmases with my kids...
But far too many of us Christian-types get our underwear bunched about how stores are making their employees say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and how Jesus is no longer "the reason for the Season." But then we participate in the very systems that are perpetuating this shift.
We focus on Spending, instead of a Savior, in other words. And what we participate in, more than what we say reveals the heart of our faith.
The answer to finding our way through this lies in the story of Jesus' arrival.
At the time of Jesus when the exalted Roman emperor Caesar Augusts proclaimed something it was called "Good News." Caesar Augustus was also said to have been born in unusual circumstances, and that star burned brightly in the sky over the place of his birth.
Caesar. Who brought about peace through superior firepower. Who imposed Roman culture around the known world with an emphasis on materialism and consumerism and worship of what wasn't God.
It seems to me that right here, right now the very same thing happens in our own culture. We're being told that our only means of salvation is to spend more money. Maybe you've seen the same bumper sticker that I've seen, "He who dies with the most toys wins." I think it should say, "He who dies with the most toys...dies."
Years ago, on a trip to Israel, our guide shared with us how in the city of Sepphoris, which is about an hour and change walk from Jesus' hometown of Nazareth, the Jewish elite in the city did everything they could to make their homes look like Roman homes.
They spent a fortune on mosaics for their floors, fountains for their atriums and on tables. There was a particular kind of table called a mensa that was used in Roman homes, and the most expensive kind was made of citrus wood that was inlaid and ornate.
When you had one or more of these kinds of tables in your house, it meant you had arrived. And these tables cost $25,000 a piece--in today's money.
This is the world created by Caesar and perpetuated by the Empire.
But with Jesus, the Good News isn't just for the elite, the Roman citizens and those who are favored by the Emperor. The Good News is for everyone, from everywhere.
The star at the time of Jesus' birth summons Gentiles from lands in the East--most likely Persians or Babylonians, the very kinds of people who had destroyed Jerusalem once upon a time and taken her people captive.
Not the kinds of people you'd expect.
And the proclamations aren't for peace through the firepower of Rome. They aren;t for salvation through blind worship of the Emperor. They are proclamations of salvation and restoration of all of Creation, including us.
Listen. We know that the Empire can't save. We know this. But just like those people of old, we blindly put our faith and trust in it and we go about acting like it has all the answers.
And we demonstrate our allegiance to the Empire by spending and consuming without a single thought to what it's doing to us---and to everyone around us. This is why Jesus urged his followers to not lay up for themselves treasures here on earth but to spend their time pursuing eternal things--justice, mercy, kindness, peace, love, joy, beauty...
You see, in the end, Christmas is not made special by stuff... It's about the memories we make, the eternal things that make it meaningful.
The way that Christmas still saves the world is when we realize at last that it's about finally seeing the light and knowing it shines within us... and that the light doesn't shine for the purpose of our using it to feed the Empire.
Our Scripture reading today speaks to us from across the centuries... Hear the words of the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah:
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
What are you going to do this Advent to share the light inside you?
Will you stop the merry-go-round of busyness and frenzy and actually share the story of the season with someone who needs to hear a word of hope?
Will you spend some of your time doing something meaningful and life-giving to others?
Will you open your home to your neighbors so that you can build relationships that will last?
Will you have your kids pick gifts for needy families instead of filling our long lists of wants and desires?
And will you pile into the car to go look at some lights? Will you find things that cost nothing or very little, push back against your schedule and make time to light a candle, to sing a carol or two, to laugh and hug and break bread...
And resist the urgency... And tell the story of how God is saving the world?
Because if we want to share the good news that Christmas can still save the world, we need to realize first that we need saving most of all...