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.

Love All (Romans 1:1-7)

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As we explored the four key ideas of the Advent Conspiracy over the last few weeks, I have been getting together with groups of people on Wednesday mornings and evenings to discuss how they might help us celebrate Christmas in a more meaningful way. This week’s discussions on Loving All were very different but both very challenging.

I actually thought this would be one of the easier topics to discuss because love is central to the teachings of Jesus. However, the conversations were very personal and challenging. It can be really difficult to love people in the way Jesus teaches, especially at Christmas. That might be because of the overwhelming needs that we face, especially when we look at the global need for basic necessities such as food, clean water, shelter, safety and medical supplies. Loving all might also be hard because there are people in our lives who are difficult to love. When we get together with our families at Christmas, there can be an expectation to have a picture-perfect celebration. However, every family has some degree of dysfunction and Christmas can be a time when that can come out in ways that can lead to arguments or other forms of conflict.

I read an author once who suggested that we can read Jesus’ command to love others in the way that he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17) as the heart of the Bible’s message, and everything else is commentary on it. We can read Scripture as being full of examples of God’s love for us in Jesus and how to love others in the same way. Especially as we read the New Testament, we can see the apostles discipling Christian communities of faith into loving others in the way Jesus teaches in their various relationships, contexts and circumstances.

What is most challenging about loving in the way of Jesus is that it focuses on what is best for the other person, even if that comes at a cost to us. The love Jesus embodied and calls us to is other-centred love. We can see this all the way through Paul’s letters for example, especially in texts such as ‘No one should seek their own good, but the good of others’ (1 Corinthians 10:24 NIV) and ‘in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others’ (Philippians 2:3b,4 NIV). Since I came across this idea, I’ve been reading the Bible through this filter, asking how each passage tells me about God’s love for me in Jesus or how to love others in the way of Jesus. I’ve found it very helpful in growing as a disciple of Jesus.

Reading the Bible in this way has shown me two basic truths. Firstly, that it is impossible for me to love this way on my own. St Augustine, a leader of the early Christian church who was born in 354AD, described sin as being curved in on ourselves. If Jesus teaches us an other-centred love, then the opposite of that will be me-centred. We can therefore understand sin not so much as breaking rules or doing the wrong thing, but an orientation towards ourselves where we think of what’s good for us over what’s good for others.

The second truth that reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ teaching on love gives me is that God really is the source of all love in the world. The Apostle John wrote, ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10 NIV). God is so other-centred that he gave everything for us and to us in the person of Jesus. This is what we talked about last week when we looked at the theme of Giving More – in Jesus, God gives all of himself to us as God became one with us, and then Jesus gave all of himself for us by dying on the cross. When we start to uncover how God has loved his people throughout history and promises to continue to love us in the words of the Bible, we begin to ‘grasp how wide and long and high and deep if the love of Christ’ so that we ‘may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:18,19 NIV).

God fills us with the fullness of his love in Jesus so we can bring his self-sacrificing, other-focused, life-changing love to others. Paul tells us at the start of his letter to the Christians in Rome that this love was never intended to be for one, exclusive group, but for all people, no matter who they are or where they come from. (Romans 1:6,7). We all have countless opportunities to show God’s inclusive love to others! The authors of the Advent Conspiracy challenge us to look overseas, to people who lack the basic necessities of life that we take for granted every day and ask how we can love them as the body of Christ. We can also look closer to home, to the needs that exist within our own nation by being the light of Christ in our country by showing his love to others in any way we can. We can also look to our own communities of faith, no matter what form they might take, and ask how we can help every person who connects with us experience the reality of God’s love life-changing for them. We can also look to our own families, with all the baggage, the history, the hurts and the dysfunction we’ll bring to our Christmas and New year celebrations, and ask how we can love them in the way Jesus loves us, no matter what it might cost us. When we love them in the way of Jesus, they can encounter the miracle of the Incarnation, almighty and eternal God taking on human flesh in human relationships, in our relationship with us.

What’s important in Loving All isn’t that we try to enforce our understanding of the meaning of Christmas onto others. That isn’t the kind of love Jesus embodied. Instead, Jesus ate and drank with sinners, loving them, accepting them, showing them a better way to live and extending grace to them, especially those who needed it the most but deserved it the least. What if we loved all in the same way – not expecting anything from them, but incarnating the goodness and mercy of God among them in grace and self-giving, other-focused love?

I pray that God will make his presence with you real in the person of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, so that as you celebrate his coming, not just then and there in Bethlehem but here and now in you, you also might be the presence of our loving God in the world as you love all.