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.

Following the Baby (Luke 2:16)

jesus in manger 01

This year we have talked a lot about discipleship and what it means for us to live as followers of Jesus. As I prepared for Christmas, I was thinking about how following Jesus connects the good news of his birth with our lives.

One thing that struck me was that the characters in the Christmas story weren’t following Jesus, but were following other things to Jesus. The shepherds followed the angel’s directions. The Magi followed a star. And what they found when they followed in faith was an infant lying in a manger.

At our Christmas Eve service, I talked about looking at our three children when they were born and being amazed at the gift of life I saw in each of them. Another thing that really hit me when I looked at each of them was how utterly powerless they were. They had no control over anything – their environment, what was happening around them, even their own bodies. A newly born infant is completely helpless, totally dependent on others for everything they need.

That was the Messiah the shepherds and the Magi encountered when they looked into the manger and saw the infant Jesus. They witnessed a God who surrenders all of his infinite power to become a helpless baby. Jesus’ birth was an act of faith as he placed his life in the hands of his parents and trusted them to care and provide for him in every way. It was an act of love because the Son of God surrenders all of his power for our sake, as he meets us where we are to give us something better.

There are biblical scholars who believe that when Jesus taught his disciples that they needed to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3) he was referring to a newborn infant. If we accept this interpretation of Jesus’ words, he seems to be saying that if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven, we need to trust our Father in heaven for everything we need, just like newborn infants trust their parents for everything to survive.

This doesn’t come easy for us. Generally, we like to be in control of ourselves, our circumstances, even the people around us. We tend to hate feeling powerless and want to take control so circumstances, situations and even people’s actions fit in with us and the way we think things should be. The problem with this is that while we are trying to exercise control, we are not trusting in God. There are those who argue that our human tendency to control things comes from our fundamental desire to play god with our own lives and the lives of others.

The good news for us in the helplessness of the infant Jesus is that, when we are powerless in our own lives and we have no control, Jesus meets us there. In those times when our life’s circumstances, our relationships or even our own bodies are out of our control, Jesus is with us. He knows what it is like to be helpless and depend entirely on others because he has been there in his infancy. Jesus knows what it is like to have no control over his environment, over anything that was going on around him, or even his own bodily functions. So when our lives, or even our own bodies, are out of control, God is with us. Whether we think of Jesus’ powerlessness in the manger or on the cross, when we are powerless, God is close to us.

That is where we learn to trust God. One of the reasons God reveals himself to us as our loving heavenly Father is that he wants us to trust him for everything the way newly born infants trust their parents. We learn what faith is all about when we surrender control, or our desire to control, and leave things in the hands of our loving heavenly Dad. We don’t have to fix things, or get our way, or make things a certain way, or get others to do things the way we think they should be done. A big part of following Jesus in faith is to actually let go of our desire to control circumstances, behaviours or people around us, and trust that God will work them for the good of all who love him (Romans 8:28).

As we live in faith, then, we also learn how to be more loving towards the people around us. Jesus surrendered his power out of love for us. In the same way, there are times when he calls us to follow him by giving up our control to show love to other people. Things don’t always have to be the way we want them or the way they have always been done. Love means taking other people’s needs or preferences into account and giving up what we think is important s for their benefit. As we prioritise other people and what is meaningful or important to them, we show them the love of God who surrendered his control and power by being born in a manger. This can happen in our congregations, our homes, or even the way we celebrate Christmas. It’s not about just giving people what they want or being a doormat. Instead, it’s about realising that things don’t always have to be the way we want them to be, and giving others a chance to contribute constructively in ways that are meaningful and important for them.

It continues to amaze me how our children are able to learn, grow and become more self-sufficient in what they can do. As they get older, they will probably rely on their parents less and less. In some ways, that is the way life is meant to be. In our relationship with God, however, our heavenly Father never wants us to stop trusting in him for everything we need. As we follow Jesus to the manger, we encounter a God who surrendered his power and control for us. When life is out of our control and we are helpless, the infant Jesus meets us there. As we gain more control, there are times when Jesus asks us to follow him by giving up our control and trusting him more as we love the people around us.

How might you give up your control, trusting in God and showing love to others this Christmas?