Christmas 2019

advent conspiracy ending slide

For the four weeks leading up to Christmas, our congregation prepared to celebrate the birth of Jesus by participating in the Advent Conspiracy. You can find more information on the Advent Conspiracy in previous messages but its basic purpose is to help us find greater meaning in Christmas by Worshiping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.

As our church gathered in worship on Christmas Eve, I reflected on the times I had been to our local shopping centre over the last few weeks. A couple of kilometres from us is Tea Tree Plaza, the biggest shopping centre in the north-east suburbs of Adelaide. It is one of the most popular places in Adelaide for people to shop so there is always a pretty strong flow of people through it. This flow turns into a torrent around Christmas as people flock to it to do their Christmas shopping.

During a couple of my visits to the Plaza before Christmas, I saw people who were wearing very Christmassy t-shirts with words like ‘Peace’ and ‘Joy’ on them. However, when I looked at their faces, they didn’t seem to be displaying a lot of peace or joy. Instead they looked worried, concerned, stressed, and frantic.

I find it ironic and, to a larger extent, tragic that the season which is supposed to be about peace and joy ends up producing exactly the opposite.

What if Christmas didn’t have to be that way? What if the things that we identify with Christmas such as peace, joy, hope and love didn’t have to be merely slogans on the clothes we wear or cards we purchase, but could be the realities in which we live and which we give to the people around us?

Instead of just talking about peace, joy, hope and love, the goal of the Advent Conspiracy is to help us find greater peace, joy, love and hope by bringing us back to what Christmas was originally all about. At Christmas we journey to the manger in faith to witness how God has entered into our existence, taken all our worries, anxieties, failures and brokenness on himself in order to free us from them, and given us life in all of its fullness. The celebration of Christmas was never intended to burden us with stress, worry and anxiety. Jesus came into the world to free us from those things and give us greater peace, joy, hope and love.

The four themes of the Advent Conspiracy are to help us on our way of finding these gifts at Christmas. When we worship fully, we keep Jesus at the centre of our Christmas celebrations, remembering that he came into the world to bless us with a deeper and longer-lasting peace, joy, hope and love. We can spend less money, freeing us from the burden of unmanageable debt, to help people who have less than we do, from our own neighbours to others around the world. We can give more of ourselves, celebrating our relationships with each other and building stronger connections with people who are closest to us or that we have a hard time relating to. And we can love all, being as inclusive with our love as God is by including us in his love through Jesus.

This isn’t just something that we can be part of at Christmas. On Christmas Day I continued with the Advent Conspiracy theme by pointing out that the mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation wasn’t just a one-off event. The way I hear some people talk about Christmas, it seems like they celebrate the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago in a land far, far away – but that’s it. I’ve been surprised this year by the number of people I’ve heard refer to Jesus’ birth as just an historical event, almost like it was confined to a moment in the past.

The mystery of the Incarnation, that the infinite God took on human form by becoming a flesh-and-blood person, is something that is a continuing reality for us. The mystery and the miracle of the Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’, is that since the birth of Jesus God has been immediately and intimately involved in human history as a real person. Something changed in the universe when Jesus was born and God began to experience what it is like for us to be born, live and die.

In a way, we can think of every day as Christmas. We focus on God becoming human in the infant Jesus at Christmas, but we share in the blessings he brings us every day of our lives. Imagine what it would be like to enjoy the best things of Christmas each and every day of the year. When we were talking about this in our service on Christmas Day, some were worried that if we have all the things that make Christmas special every day, such as decorations, food, carols and gifts, then they would become ordinary and stop being special. But what if we could wake up every morning with all the best things about Christmas there for us to enjoy, and they would never stop being special? How good would that be?

The Advent Conspiracy was never meant to be just a Christmas thing. It is there to help us re-orient our worldview at Christmas so we can continue to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All for the other forty-eight weeks of the year as well. As we look for Jesus and the mystery of ‘God with us’ during the whole year, we can find deeper and lasting peace, joy, hope and love all year round. These aren’t just nice ideas for a particular time of year, but gifts that we can carry with us and draw on throughout the year, especially when we or others around us need them the most.

God is with us in Jesus through his Spirit for the entire year. God didn’t just take on human flesh two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. God continues to take on our human existence, becoming flesh and blood as he is born in us, just as Jesus was born in the manger. Jesus comes alive in our hearts as we hear the good news of his birth and life, death and resurrection for us. The same Holy Spirit who created the life of Jesus within Mary creates his new life in us through the faith the Spirit gives us. When we gather together as God’s people to celebrate the meal that Jesus gave us, he is there, giving us his incarnate self through the bread and wine to live in us, to unite us in relationship with our loving heavenly Father, and to join us with other believers as his living, breathing body in the world.

God’s gift of his Son to us wasn’t just an event that happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. God gifts his Son to us through the Holy Spirit every time we read or hear his Word, the good news of Jesus, and as we receive the meal Jesus provided for his followers. That means that every day is Christmas as God becomes one with us and gifts us with his life-giving presence.

As we came to the end of the Advent Conspiracy for this year, we gathered in worship to hear the story of Jesus birth and to live in the faith that God who embraced human existence is still embracing us and our humanity. Because of this good news, we can continue to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All as we live in the peace, joy hope and love that Jesus gifts to us every day of the year.

Give More (Matthew 11:2-11)

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It might seem strange to some that the week after we talked about Spending Less at Christmas, we look at the idea of Giving More. Maybe that’s because we often closely connect giving with spending money. What if we didn’t have to? What might Christmas be like if we explored the ways we can give more of ourselves to each other relationally, rather than giving things we don’t really need?

The authors of the Advent Conspiracy write about giving more of ourselves in our relationships with others because of their faith in the giving nature of God. When we encounter God in the person of Jesus, we meet the God who gives with no strings attached. The authors of the Advent Conspiracy show us how we can understand God gift to us in the person of Jesus in a few ways:

  • God gave us his presence
    Matthew’s gospel identifies Jesus as the one who fulfils the words of the prophet Isaiah that Jesus is Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:22,23). Jesus is God’s presence with us in all the circumstances of our lives.
  • The gift of Jesus was personal
    God knows what each and every one of us needs in our lives. We can talk about Jesus coming to give life to everyone in the world, but a saving faith trusts that he did it for each of us personally.
  • His gift was costly
    God held nothing back, but he gave up his Son, the most precious thing he has, out of love for us (John 3:16). In the same way, Jesus gave everything up for us and held nothing back by dying on the cross (1 John 4:10). The gift of life cost Jesus everything.
  • His gift bridged the gap
    When sin separated us from God, Jesus bridged the gap between us and brought us back into relationship with God. God did this by becoming one with us in Jesus who is fully God and fully human, and then Jesus removed everything that divides us by dying on the cross.

In Jesus’ birth we find a God who gives everything to us and for us. We can also see the giving nature of God in Jesus in the words of the gospel reading for last Sunday. In Matthew 11:2-11, John the Baptists sends some of his disciples to see if Jesus really is the Messiah they had been waiting for. Jesus replies by saying,

‘Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen – the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.’ (vv4,5 NLT)

In this reading we witness some of the gifts God gives to us through Jesus. He doesn’t just physically heal people, but also our heart, mind and soul. When we find it hard to see God’s goodness, Jesus helps us see God’s grace and love. He gives us the strength we need to walk in the way he teaches as we follow him in faith and love. Jesus makes us clean by taking everything about us that is unclean, forgiving us and restoring us to our relationships and community. When we were dead in sin, Jesus raises us to new life as children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. This is the Good News which he proclaims to us when our hearts, minds and souls are impoverished and empty.

When the authors of the Advent Conspiracy point us to the way God gives to us in Jesus, they ask us to consider giving to others in the same way: giving our presence in a personal way, even though it might cost us, to bridge the gaps that exist between us. The gifts they encourage us to give are more relational in nature. These are gifts that celebrate the relationships we have and keep them strong.

The Advent Conspiracy website has a lot of good ideas on how to give more in a relational way. As I thought about Giving More leading up to Advent, though, it became clear that the idea of Giving More doesn’t just apply to Christmas, but connects with other things that are happening around our church.

During our Annual Business Meeting a few weeks ago, I asked the people who attended to describe the church they hope to be in the future. As I read their responses, ideas like ‘inclusive’, ‘inter-generational’ and ‘community’ came up regularly. I started asking myself if this was the kind of community people were hoping to get for themselves, or were hoping to give to others. If we all hope to get a community that includes me or my generation, then it isn’t going to happen. To Give More means to be willing to give an inclusive, inter-generational community as a gift to others by being inclusive of all people, of all generations. The other idea that appeared regularly was being ‘Christ-centred.’ To be ‘Christ-centred’ essentially means loving each other in the way Christ loves us. To use the language of the Advent Conspiracy, that includes giving more of our presence to each other in a personal way, no matter what the cost, to bridge the gaps that exist between us.

We have an opportunity to do that next month. Between Christmas and the end of January, our congregation will be having one weekly worship service. The hope is to combine elements of both styles of worship, but from past experiences I suspect that some people’s immediate reaction will be to complain that they aren’t getting what they want. I hope that our congregation will Give More in worship after Christmas by giving up our personal preferences for music, liturgical style, and other things so we can worship with others in our congregation who like to worship in a different way. I’m asking the people of our church to prioritise people over our worship preferences. When we do that, we extend God’s grace to each other as we give more for the sake of Jesus.

To Give More means to embrace a life of grace. I tend to think that life is about one of two things: what we give or what we get. It is our natural orientation to want to get more than we give. However, when we encounter the gift of Jesus, born for us in Bethlehem and laid in a manger, we witness the giving nature of God who gifts us with his presence in a personal way, no matter what the cost, to bridge the gap that existed between us.

As we trust in God’s gift of himself to us in Jesus, God then asks us to go and give of ourselves to others in the same way.

How might we do that this Christmas, and in the coming year…?