Dec. 16/17 The Advent Conspiracy: Give More
Matthew 1: 18-25
We’ve been spending our weeks leading up to Christmas in a series called The Advent Conspiracy, where we’ve been asking the question, “Can Christmas still change the world? And our answer is “Yes!” You see, if we trade in our consumption for compassion and learn some new habits, I believe we can experience Christmas like never before. So far in this series we’ve explored how we can worship fully and spend less. Today, we learn how we can give more.
Have you ever tried to explain the meaning of Christmas to a child? It’s a tall task. Our kids have to be awfully confused in today’s culture, what with all the Ho, Ho, Ho’s and snowmen. And even if we want to shield our little ones from wrong impressions, we’re facing an uphill battle. When Reagan was born, Joanna and I made the decision that we weren’t going to focus on Santa. Santa just wasn’t going to be a frequent conversation piece in our house. Not that we had anything against the idea, we just weren’t going to allow Santa to become a focus. But we simply couldn’t compete with the rest of our family and friends and school parties. I finally threw up my hands after hearing another well-meaning adult ask, “And what is Santa going to bring you this year?” In the end, we simply had to conclude that we better be awfully good at telling our kids the true story of Christmas.
You know, one way we can celebrate Christmas differently is to tell the actual story. You might think it’s a story that’s well known, but I think most of us would be surprised at how little today’s culture knows about Jesus. I have a feeling that our kids probably know more about the North Pole than Bethlehem. But there is good news! The story of Jesus sounds a whole lot more believable than the other stories that fill up our movies and songs. So one of the ways we can give more this Christmas is to become good at telling others about the birth of the Savior.
The story begins on a dark note, in a nation filled with a history of ups and downs. Israel has been enslaved by other countries and robbed of their dignity and independence for a good portion of their existence. First it was Egypt, then Babylon, now it is Rome. And the Jewish people are waiting…waiting for God to move, waiting for hope to break through, waiting for new life to enter their troubled world. And little do they know that everything they’re waiting for is beginning to take shape in a little known couple from Nazareth.
Joseph and Mary go down in history as one of the most important couples in the world, but their story began in relative obscurity. They were an average couple, pledged to be married, which was a little more serious than an engagement. They had not consummated their relationship with sexual activity, and so you can imagine the shock when Joseph hears the news that Mary is pregnant. In that single moment, he could’ve ruined her life. This was grounds for some pretty severe punishment and a strong smear campaign, but instead, Joseph takes a different approach: he’ll divorce her quietly. And so we begin to see that the Christmas story begins in the messiness of a plan for divorce. There’s something real and gritty about this story that sounds a lot like the world we know. This sounds like a story that could easily happen today.
As the story continues, Joseph’s life is interrupted again, this time by an angel that gives him a new perspective. This baby is not the result of unfaithfulness; this is not the adulterous affair of a man who can’t keep his hands off a vulnerable woman; no, this is the work of the Holy Spirit, and the baby conceived in Mary is the one all of Israel has been waiting for. The angel says that baby shall be called Jesus, and he will save the people from their sins. And although he probably didn’t realize the full reality of this announcement, Joseph understands that something out-of-the-ordinary is happening here. This baby will be God-in-the-flesh. This baby will be God’s grandest revelation of love and presence in a dark and lonely world.
Now, in the past, God spoke to creation in many ways, but his loudest proclamation was this moment, the gift of his son. This baby is God with us. The Gospel of John puts it this way: The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” Not some distant God, not a God who exists only in stories on paper, not a God of history, but God with us. That’s a phenomenal thought that deserves our serious attention. Cheryl Lawrie, a disciple from Australia, has thought long and hard about the ramifications of such good news. She put her reflections in a poem. I’d like to read it for you: We are tempted to think that this is out of character for you, a momentary fragility showing your tender side; that once the Christmas carols are finished and the decorations are put away, you’ll get back to power and might. But in your completeness—this one chance we get to see flesh and bone put onto the theory – this is you; fragile, impossibly vulnerable, and at the mercy of human response. (Poem taken from The Advent Conspiracy Sermon Notes).
Come to think of it, that’s a pretty startling revelation. God doesn’t come to us in power and might and with thunder and lightning; he comes to us in the vulnerable form of a baby who is completely at the mercy of frail and broken human beings, an innocent child held in the arms of a young woman and her husband. That’s the Christmas story. That’s the gritty, no-nonsense story that should have us on our knees in worship. Not a gift under a tree; not a toy shop at the North Pole, not a magic hat that causes snowmen to come alive; but the wonder-invoking truth that God, in the flesh, has come to be with us. And in this story, God answers one of the questions that lingers deeply within each us- Are you with me, God?
Are you with me when I get the news I don’t want to get? Are you with me when my hopes have been dashed? Are you with me when things seem to fall off the rails? Are you with me when I can’t sleep at night? Are you with me when my loved one is no longer here? Are you with me when I can’t seem to get ahead? God, are you with me? And somewhere, testimonies of a young, scared couple named Mary and Joseph whisper into our souls, “Yes, God is with you.”
It’s hard to explain the transformation that takes places when you realize that God has fully given himself to you, and he’s held nothing back. There’s something simple, yet powerful when you experience the fullness of someone’s presence in your life. Mary’s fear was eclipsed by joyful song and meditation. Joseph’s thoughts of divorce quickly evaporated into a deep commitment to God’s plans. Peter, James and John left their boats to follow. Paul traded in his hatred for love. You can’t buy that type of transformation with money, nor do you find it wrapped neatly under a tree; that type of change happens only when you are fully present with others.
I struggled emotionally during my first few months of of college. I was at homesick. There was no place on earth like my home. And so every weekend, my dad would drive to Slippery Rock and pick me up. It wasn’t because I had important work to do or big plans; it was mostly because I wanted to be with my family. Those years were some of the most meaningful years of my life, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything because they satisfied a deep longing in my soul. And the only thing it cost was gas.
And so when it comes to Christmas, we learn from God that one of the best gifts we can give is our presence. To be with someone, in the midst of their joys and sorrows, is a gift that blesses, transforms, renews, strengthens and comforts. It’s a gift that says, “I see you. You are not alone. And you don’t have to carry this burden by yourself.” Bishop Joe Pennel writes of a time when he experienced this gift from a parishioner. Listen to his story, “At the age of two, our youngest daughter had surgery. The surgery was not classified as serious, but it was formidable for her mother and me. While she was in surgery, I looked across the hospital room and saw Travis, a member of a former congregation… He had driven 125 miles to see us. When our eyes met, he said, ‘I just came to be with you.’ The tone of his voice brought comfort to us although he did not talk much. He showed his love for us by simply being present…His physical presence brought a comforting presence that embodied love for us.”
That’s what it means to give more. A physical presence that brings an inward comforting presence that would not otherwise be known. That’s the gift of Christmas -- embodied love. So let me ask you something? If you can bring warmth, joy and comfort to others simply by being present with them, then why not do it? Maybe this Christmas, it’s time to stop thinking about calling up that person for a visit and just do it. Maybe this Christmas, it’s time to put down the phones, the ipads and the technology and pay attention. Maybe this Christmas, it’s time to slow down and give more of you. Money can’t buy the difference you want to make. No tangible item can impact your loved one the way you want it to. Only your presence can do that. And I think Jesus will tell you it’s good for the soul. So this Christmas, however you choose to do it, worship fully, spend less and give more—of you! Amen.