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.

God’s Glory (John 1:1-14)

glory-to-god-in-the-highest-03Every now and then a gentleman comes into the church office asking questions about God and faith. I don’t honestly know whether this gentleman is searching for answers to his questions, or whether he is just looking for an argument. Whatever his reason might be, his questions are good and challenge us to search for a deeper understanding of God and the way he is at work in the world.

One question this gentleman has asked a number of times is one that has perplexed humanity for thousands of years – if God is all-good, all-loving and all-powerful, then why are children and other innocents dying everyday all around the world from war, hunger, abuse, preventable diseases, and other evils. The assumption behind his question is that if God is actually all-good, all-loving and all-powerful, then he would somehow eradicate evil and everyone, especially the innocent victims of human hatred and greed, would be able to live safe, happy, well-adjusted lives.

I can understand this gentleman’s struggle with the paradox of God’s love and power because I grapple with it on a regular basis in a number of different circumstances. The problem with simply getting rid of evil is that, if God were to do that, God would also need to get rid of human will which is often the cause of the evils in the world. We would end up with a God who controls people instead of a God who gifts people with freedom. People who have no will are people who are unable to love, and if God’s desire is that we live in loving relationships with him and with others (see Matthew 22:34-40 etc.), then taking away our will also takes away our capacity to love.

So instead, God deals with the problem of evil in a different way. Instead of magically getting rid of suffering in the world, God shows us his glory by doing something that we don’t expect and that no-one else could do – he enters into the suffering of the world as a child. God joins us in our suffering in order to meet us where we are and then give us the hope of something better in Jesus.

This might sound a little philosophical and a bit depressing for a Christmas Day message. We expect and look for Christmas to be light and happy most of the time. But that misses the real significance and power of the Christmas story. Jesus wasn’t born in a sanitized and air conditioned birthing suite. He came into the world by being born in a dirty, smelly, unhygienic cattle shed. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were shameful for their culture as his mother became pregnant before she was married to her fiancé. At the time, the people to whom Jesus was born were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire which kept control through brutal and oppressive violence. We can sanitize the Christmas story so much that we forget that God entered the world in humble way, immersed in shame and into the suffering of an occupied and oppressed people. The Christmas story is really a story of shame, dirt, and conflict.

We see God’s glory in this story because when we are suffering from shame, dirt or conflict, God is with us through the birth of Jesus to give us hope and peace, love and even joy. Jesus shows us the glory of a God who isn’t removed or distant from the realities of our lives, but he is right there with us, walking with us every step of the way, because he has been there before us in the person of Jesus. He doesn’t just leave us there, but, in Jesus, God promises us a life that is free from shame, in which we are made clean through his forgiveness and healing, and set free from the oppression of sin, death and all the evils of this world.

When this gentleman comes into the office, then, and asks where God is when the innocents are suffering and dying, I can tell him that in Jesus, God is right there with them. This is not an empty platitude to try to win an argument, but the glory of God at work in the world. In Jesus, God exercises his power by joining with all of us who suffer. He surrenders his power to meet us in the circumstances of our lives and then gives us the hope of a better life. We see the love of God as, in Jesus, God is willing to sacrifice everything, even his heavenly glory and his own life, to suffer at the hands of evil in order to free us from the power of evil. We encounter the glory of God in Jesus who meets us where we are, journeys with us to carry our shame, scandal and conflict for us, sets us free and gives us life that never ends.

Where is God when the world, or when we are hurting? In the birth of Jesus, God is right there with us.

More to think about:

  • Do you ever ask where God is when things go wrong or you witness people suffering? What has caused you to ask that question recently?
  • Are you able to reconcile the idea of an all-loving and all-powerful God with suffering in the world? If so, how do you do it? If not, what gets in the way?
  • How might God entering into human shame & suffering in the person of Jesus shape your thinking about God’s relationship with pain in the world?
  • If or when you suffer from shame, scandal or conflict in your life, could it make a difference to trust that God is with you in those times in the person of Jesus, and that he will get you through them? Can you explain why or why not?
  • How might God entering into human shame & suffering inspire us to walk with others who are experiencing their own pain?

‘Incarnate’ (Matthew 1:18-25)

Nativity

I recently finished reading a book called Beyond Belief: How we find meaning, with or without religion (Macmillan, 2016). In it, author and social researcher Hugh Mackay reflects the way that many Australians look for meaning and spiritual growth in their lives outside of mainstream Christian churches. One thing he says in the book is that it is unreasonable for people to believe in the claims of traditional Christianity that Jesus was born of a virgin and was raised from the dead. He writes, ‘for me, the whole edifice of Christianity would crumble if the idea of a literal virgin birth were to be regarded as its crucial foundation’ (p223).

As we approach Christmas, it becomes important for us to think through the claim of the virgin birth and whether it actually makes any difference. If the claim of the virgin birth is not to be taken literally, then we are left with a Jesus who was like many others who taught how we are to live our lives. He might teach us how to live, but is not able to help us when we are unable to live the way we are supposed.

If, however, we take literally this story of the angel’s assurance to Joseph that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, then everything changes. Jesus is no longer a moral teacher who tells me how to live but is unable to help me in my need. Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to state that Jesus’ biological father was actually God. If we understand the virgin birth literally, then Jesus is the embodied, flesh and blood presence of God with humanity. God enters into our existence through the person of Jesus to share with our joys and struggles, our successes and our failures. He brings with him the blessings that come with the full goodness of God in a human body. That is what ‘Incarnate’ means: Jesus is God who comes to us as a real, flesh and blood person to enter into our reality and bring God’s life-giving presence to us in all of life’s circumstances.

We can think of it like this: During my years serving as a school pastor I taught Christian Studies. When students were struggling to complete a task, if I stood at the front of the classroom and told them what to do, they still found it difficult to solve the problem. However, if I got out from behind the desk, went to where they were and got alongside them, we were able to solve the problem together. In the person of Jesus, God doesn’t stay in heaven and tell us what we need to do to live in ways that are good for us and for each other. Instead, God moves to where we are, joins us in our lives, embraces us in our humanity, walks with us through the ups and downs of life, and gives us what we need to live in the peace, joy, hope and love that we celebrate at Christmas.

Because Jesus is God, he is not limited by time and space. That is why we don’t just celebrate the coming of Jesus two thousand years ago, but that he continues to come to us as a real, flesh and blood person to embrace us in our lives, no matter what might be happening in our lives. We are never alone because Jesus is God with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. He gives himself to us and becomes one with us as he takes away our guilt, shame and brokenness and gives us forgiveness, healing and new life as his people. It may not feel like it sometimes, but the promise of the angel to Joseph is also God’s promise to us: in Jesus, God is with us in all the circumstances of life, and he will never let us go.

One final aspect of the idea of the Incarnation is that God continues to enter into the world to bring his peace, joy, hope and love to the world in real, flesh and blood ways. When the Apostle Paul describes believers in Jesus as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), he isn’t just using a nice metaphor or image. Because Jesus comes to us as a real, flesh and blood person, and makes himself one with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus takes on our flesh and blood and enters the world through us. As the living and breathing, flesh and blood body of Jesus in the world, God enters the world through us as we live as Jesus’ followers in faith and in love. Growing as Jesus’ disciples and following him in all we say and do becomes so critically important because as we grow as children of God and followers of Jesus, Jesus enters the world to continue his work of redeeming and renewing the world through us. In a way, we become little Marys as Christ enters the world to bring grace, love and hope through our words and actions, through our relationships and callings in life.

I can understand Hugh Mackay’s difficulty in accepting the claims of Jesus’ virgin birth. From a human point of view, it doesn’t make sense. However, if decide that we can’t take it literally, then Jesus just becomes another moral teacher who can tell me what I should be doing but who can’t help me when I need it. When we embrace the mystery of the virgin birth and enter into it through faith, then God is with us in a real, flesh and blood way through Jesus. God embraces us and gives us what we need to live in hope, peace, joy and love with a life that is even stronger than death. When we embrace this mystery through faith, then we find that Jesus isn’t just ‘God with us’ in the stories of the past. Instead, God is with us right here and now to give us hope, peace, joy and love in all the circumstances of life, and God is with others through us.

More to think about:

  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus? Can you explain why you think that way?
  • Do you tend to think of Jesus more as a moral teacher or as someone who came to save those who couldn’t live up to his moral teachings? Do you think it is possible to someone to live up to Jesus’ ethical & moral standards? (If you’re not sure what Jesus standards were, read Matthew chapters 5 to 7 – his Sermon on the Mount)
  • When we look at a baby, we can see a person who is helpless, dependent on others, and who has no control, either of things around them or even their own bodies. How might this be good news for us – that when we are helpless, dependent or out of control, God is with us in the infant Jesus?
  • If we take the incarnation (God embracing humanity as a real, flesh & blood person) literally, how might that shape the way you think of your relationship God? With others? With your congregation’s relationship with the community around you?
  • What are some ways in which God can enter into the lives of the people you will see this Christmas to give them his hope, peace, joy and love through your words and actions?