As our congregation continues participating in the Advent Conspiracy to help us prepare to celebrate Christmas, the second theme we’re looking at is to Spend Less. I did some homework to find out how much we spend at this time of year and discovered that last year Australians spent $25 billion. That works out to about $1,325 per person across our country.
I was stunned when I found that statistic. What makes it even more extraordinary to me is when we look at it in the context of people who are in need around the world. For example:
- More than a billion people in the world live on less than a dollar per day
- 2.8 billion people, almost half of the global population, live on less than 2 dollars per day
- Every day, 30,000 children under 5 die from avoidable diseases
- More than a billion people don’t have access to healthy water
- 20% of the global population have 90% of the wealth
Closer to home, as I sat down at my desk last Friday to prepare this message, I received an email telling me that ‘one in six Australian children and young people are growing up in poverty.’ Whether we look globally or on our own doorstep, there are people in need who would benefit from at least some of the $25 billion we spend on presents, food, decorations and other things at Christmas.
It makes even less sense to me that we spend this amount of money at Christmas when we listen to the teachings of the person whose birth we are celebrating. When we read the gospels and what Jesus said about money, he said things like:
- “You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (Matthew 6:24)
- “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.” (Luke 6:20)
- “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” (Luke 12:21)
- “Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven!” (Luke 12:33)
We can spend a lot of time discussing exactly what Jesus meant when he said these and other words like them. Some people take them more literally, while others argue that Jesus was using hyperbole to make a point or speaking metaphorically. No matter how we might interpret Jesus’ teachings, there can be no doubt that Jesus challenges his followers to think carefully about the place money has in our lives and the importance we give to material possessions. It can be easy for us as more affluent Christians in the developed world to skip over what Jesus says about money, but we need to be listening to Jesus and wrestling with the meaning behind his words if we are going to find and share the life he promises us.
Jesus identified strongly with the poor because he knew poverty. When he was born, his parents lay him in a manger, a place which contained straw for the animals to eat, and not in a soft, comfortable bed. By the age of two, Jesus and his parents fled their home to Egypt as refugees. During the three years of his ministry, Jesus was basically an unemployed homeless person who survived on the generosity of others. He was crucified as a slave with no clothes, money or other possessions. After his death, Jesus’ friends laid his body in a borrowed tomb.
The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus embraced poverty in order to provide us with the riches of God’s grace. He wrote,
‘You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9 NLT).
Paul uses financial language to tell us that Jesus gave up everything we might think is important so that we can become rich in our relationship with God. Everything in creation belongs to Jesus because he created it with the Father and the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus gave it all up to live in poverty and die with nothing so that we might become rich in God’s grace. Some like to think that Paul means financially rich, but he more likely means that we can become rich in the things that money can’t buy. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we become rich in God’s love as he gives us his perfect and infinite love. God makes us rich in hope as Jesus’ resurrection gives us the hope of a better tomorrow. God makes us rich in joy as we celebrate the presence of God in our lives through Jesus. God makes us rich in peace as we find peace with God and with others through the forgiveness of sins, and peace in ourselves as we trust God in every circumstance of life. God makes us rich through Jesus in ways that money can’t buy, and in ways that will last beyond death for all eternity.
The challenge of the Advent Conspiracy to spend less isn’t about making us feel guilty for spending money at Christmas. Firstly, it challenges us to look beyond the consumerism of the society we live in and our own desires for more stuff to the greater need that exists in our own country and around the world. It then challenges us to share some of what we have with others who need it more than we do.
The second challenge of the Advent Conspiracy is to ask ourselves what really matters to us at Christmas. Are we trying to fill our lives or the lives of others with stuff so that we don’t have to deal with the deeper needs we have within us? Do we get caught up in the spending frenzy because that’s what we think gives our lives value or meaning? Or are we willing to admit that we have deeper needs which presents or possessions can’t satisfy? What if we could find what we need in Jesus who became poor to make us rich in hope, peace, joy and love? No matter how much we spend, I haven’t met anyone yet who have found these in what they buy. The promise Jesus gives us is that he gives them to us for free.
The gospel reading for Sunday tells the story of John the Baptist who calls people to repent (Matthew 3:1,2). Repentance doesn’t mean feeling sorry for the wrong things we’ve done. It means making changes in our lives and moving in a better direction. Maybe this Christmas, John is calling us to repent by changing the way we spend. Maybe John is calling us to look for what our hearts need in relationship with Jesus, not in the things we buy or the things we want. When we find what our hearts need in Jesus, then, maybe, we can spend less on stuff that doesn’t last, and share that with others who need it more than we do.