Let’s walk by the Lord’s light, Isaiah says.
Most of us want to do that, to be best of our understanding and the best of our capability.
We want to do what’s right. We want to walk in paths that are well-lighted by God’s instruction for right living. There are widely divergent ideas about what right living amounts to, but whatever we perceive it to be, we want to do it. We want to live in ways that are attuned to God’s heartstrings.
What that means is, what we really want to do is worship God fully.
Some people have the idea that worship is what you do in church on Sunday morning. Some people have even more truncated notions than that. Some think worship means singing, and everything else you do on Sunday morning is just an annoyance you put up with between songs. Even worse, some think that the sermon is the main event, and everything revolves around it.
But worship is far more than singing, and far more than preaching, and far more than plunking your bottom in a pew or chair for an hour or more on Sunday morning. Worship is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year endeavor. Worship is not a part of living; it is living. Worship is not something you do part-time; it’s your full-time occupation.
It’s a lot like breathing. If you stop breathing, you die. If you stop worshiping, you may still be breathing, but you’re not fully alive anymore.
That’s why “worship fully” is the first of the four key principles of the Advent Conspiracy.
Rest assured, the Advent Conspiracy is not like those other conspiracies you hear so much about these days. You know, those wacko theories about how sinister forces are out to undermine our sacred values and destroy our way of life.
No, the Advent Conspiracy is nothing like that at all. It’s a very public and very loose union of churches and individuals with one goal in mind – and that is, bring some sanity to our celebration of Christmas. We want to actually celebrate the birth of Jesus rather than drive ourselves crazy observing traditions that have little meaning for us and drive ourselves to bankruptcy buying tacky gifts for people who already have everything they need.
The movement was started more than a dozen years ago by three young pastors. They range from fundamentalist to progressive in theology but they all lead non-traditional churches and they all passionately love Jesus. They are Rick McKinley of Imago Dei Community in Portland; Chris Seay of Ecclesia community in Houston; and Greg Holder of The Crossing in St. Louis.
I’ve been promoting the Advent Conspiracy since about its second or third year. It fits nicely into the themes of Keeping Christmas, my new book. Like many books, it has been in the works a long time. It started as a guide about how to prepare for Christmas without being distracted by all the hustle and bustle and tinsel and politics that typically clutter the holiday season.
Along the way, I got interested in the history of Christmas and discovered that the standard story of how Christians stole the date from the pagans is simply a lie. Christmas is not a pagan holiday, though some of the crazy ways we celebrate Jesus’ birth do have pagan roots.
One of the important things we always need to keep in mind is a concept from United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter. He’s written a book with the totally obvious but still mind-blowing title, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday.
Actually, a certain number of people probably do celebrate their birthday on December 25. But the Christmas celebration is not about their birthday. It’s about the birthday of Jesus. The point is simple: It’s not your birthday, so why are you getting presents? Even when you help a friend celebrate a birthday, the most you get is some fun and some cake and ice cream and maybe a party favor. You give presents. You don’t receive them.
Remember the Magi who traveled so far to honor the newborn king? We’ll talk more about them at Epiphany in early January. Theologian Miroslav Volf notes that the Magi give baby Jesus gifts that are fit for a king – gold and frankincense and myrrh. One thing they do not do, he says. “They do not huddle together around a warm fire and give gifts to each other…” But isn’t that exactly what we do every year at Christmas?
Nobody is saying we shouldn’t give any gifts to one another. We are saying that we ought to be more careful about what we do give and to whom. As much as I love my grandson Theo, I know there’s a limit to the number of toys he should get at Christmas. Maybe if Linda and I gave him one less toy, we could give a toy to a child who might not get anything otherwise.
That’s the essence of the Advent Conspiracy. It’s a conspiracy of love. It’s based on four powerful and countercultural concepts:
1. Worship fully, because Christmas begins and ends with Jesus. Keep your focus on Jesus, despite the many distractions of the season.
2. Spend less, to free your resources for things that truly matter. Give one less material gift to those in your inner circle whom you especially love.
3. Give more of your presence, your time, your heart, your self, to those people closest to you.
4. Love all – the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized. Love them in ways that make a difference in their lives. Take the money that you would have spent on that material gift for someone close to you and give it away so that the lives of others will be brightened.
That’s the conspiracy. That’s all there is to it. Soon, I’ll introduce you to a special way of living out the Advent Conspiracy. I call it the Advent Challenge.
First, though, let’s return to that pivotal Advent Conspiracy theme, worship fully. It is especially appropriate for this first Sunday in Advent, when our overall theme is hope. The birth of Jesus fulfills the hope of generations of the people of Israel.
Our reading from Isaiah this morning announces God’s future reign over all the earth. Reigning on earth as in heaven has been one of God’s goals from the first days of creation. In Jesus, that goal comes closer to becoming a reality. But this event was eagerly anticipated for hundreds of years beforehand.
Shockingly enough, not one but two prophets claim the words of the prophecy that we read earlier. Both Isaiah and Micah proclaim the same future reality, using the same words.
They both lived about the same time, 800 years before the birth of Jesus. It’s possible that one borrowed from the other. But it’s more likely that both borrowed from an earlier source. It’s more likely that they are both citing an ancient dream that has already been put into powerful words. God put this idea in the minds of Israel’s sages a long time ago, and both Isaiah and Micah repeat it to keep the idea alive.
One day, the prophets say, the peoples of the world will stream to Jerusalem to hear God’s teaching. Instruction will pour out from Mount Zion. The word of the Lord will be heard from Jerusalem. All the nations will learn to walk in God’s pathways.
God will judge between the nations and settle their disputes. Then the nations will beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will no longer take up the sword against nation. They will no longer learn how to make war.
O Lord, the prophets say, make it so!
Preparing for this message last week, I came across a striking comment on this passage. The author said that it’s really not hard to make swords and spears into plows and pruning tools. Any blacksmith could do it.
Think about that. Any blacksmith could do it. But would any blacksmith do it? Who will join God’s conspiracy to overthrow the evil lords of this world and reign on earth as powerfully as God already reigns in heaven? Who will do this by destroying implements of hate and making implements of peace?
I want to give you an opportunity to do your part in this conspiracy of love. You can be one of the blacksmiths who contribute to world peace, one sword and one spear at a time.
I call it this Advent Challenge. It’s a simple thing with three parts.
1. Do something to brighten someone’s day.
2. Leave a card that tells why you did it.
3. Do it again.
As you receive Holy Communion this morning, you’ll have an opportunity to take as many cards as you think you might need for use in Advent and in the Christmas season beyond.
Last week, you may recall, I said that receiving communion is one of the ways you can declare allegiance to King Jesus. In a moment I’ll invite you forward to do just that, and to receive Advent Challenge cards that you can use to spread the love of God and the hope of Jesus to others in this season that leads us toward Christmas.
A baby King is coming into the world to set things right. The forces of evil are gathering to stop him. Won’t you join a conspiracy of love to bring the baby to his rightful throne?
“Worship fully” is a message preached Dec. 1, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood.