In our worship time together, we are going to be dancing lightly through the stories of Jesus’ advent. We set the scene last Sunday with an ancient prophecy of God’s hope for a peaceful world.
Today we look at how God starts to bring it about, beginning with the story of Jesus’ cousin John – or, rather, the story of John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Zach and Liz are good, faithful people who have tried to honor God with their lives – and they have in all ways but one. They have no children – a major failing in their culture. Elizabeth bears the brunt of the shame, because it’s always assumed that it’s the woman’s fault she can’t get pregnant, as if fault has any part in it.
Zach is a priest, but he’s what you might call bivocational. Priesthood is an inherited occupation, and there are so many priests that few of them can serve in the temple full-time. Most serve a two-week term once a year.
It’s during one of these stints that Zach is chosen to light incense in one of the most secluded and quiet and holy and – let’s face it, scary – inner rooms of the sanctuary. And it’s there that he encounters an angel. He’s scared out of his wits. The angel announces that the old couple’s prayers have been answered. They’ll soon have a son who will be great in the Lord’s eyes.
Zach scoffs. He and Liz are too old for that kind of thing. The angel angrily says, “You talk too much of things you know nothing about. You can just spend the next nine months unable to talk at all.”
So Liz gets pregnant and Zach can’t speak until John is born. Then Zach bursts forth in speech. We know it today as the Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus, Latin for the first word, “Blessed,” as in “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for God has looked favorably upon us.”
Their son, John the Baptizer, will indeed prepare a way for the Lord. He’ll live out those ancient prophecies about building a highway for God’s arrival – as Isaiah said, raising the low places and lowering the high places to make a straight and level roadway. (Isaiah 40.3-4)
During Advent, we also try to make a highway for God – a highway in our hearts. So on this second Sunday of the season, we light a candle of peace and we ponder some of the ways we celebrate the coming of Jesus. Today, we ponder the custom of Christmas gift giving.
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Think for a moment about the worst Christmas present you ever got. You remember it, I’m sure. You opened the package with the usual expectation and hope, and then you got this sudden, empty feeling in your stomach and you thought, “Whatever in the world am I going to do with that?”
Now try to consider the gift from the point of view of the person who gave it to you. Whatever in the world was she thinking? Was she even thinking? Or was this one of those “white elephant” gifts that she got at work, and now she’s “re-gifting” it to you? She’s passing it on to you, knowing that you’ll probably pass it on to somebody else – unless you have the gumption to pitch it in the trash, hoping that it gets buried so deep in the landfill that it never again sees the light of day.
Oh the games we play at Christmas! The last thing Uncle Robert probably needs is another sweater, but you get him one anyway because you can’t think of anything else he might need, and you haven’t seen him for long enough in long enough to have the vaguest idea what he might prefer.
Of course, you don’t know what size he wears, either, so you settle on Large. Maybe he likes it loose – or tight, as the case may be. If it doesn’t fit, or he doesn’t like the color or the pattern, he can always take it back and exchange it for something he really wants. That’s what gift receipts are for, right?
Meanwhile, the number of service providers who have their hand out to you is almost staggering: the person who does your hair or your nails, your chiropractor or therapist, child care provider, newspaper carrier, dog walker, housekeeper, lawn mower, snow shoveler…
You wonder how our celebration of the birth of Jesus turned into such a display of greed, paranoia and despair. This is Jesus, after all – the one who said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) Why do we celebrate his birthday by giving mounds of stuff to people we hardly know and expecting some of them to give us stuff in return?
Mark Twain once said, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” It’s true of Christmas as well. Everybody complains about how impersonal and commercial Christmas has gotten, but hardly anybody does anything about it.
Here’s a quote to ponder. “There are worlds of money wasted at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants and nobody cares for after they are got.”
That quote comes from novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. She’s the one who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she said that in 1850. That’s 169 years ago. A lot of things have changed in 169 years. Christmas has changed, too, but maybe not as much as you might think. It was a mess then, too.
Another novelist of Stowe’s day supplied us with a one-word reply that shuts down any criticism of Christmas excess. Charles Dickens is the novelist, A Christmas Carol is the novel, and, of course, the powerful word is “Scrooge.” All you have to do is hint that someone may be Scroogelike, and you’ve won your case. No one wants to be known as a Scrooge. So hardly anyone dares to criticize the excesses of our cultural Christmas.
Economist Joel Waldfogel is among those who dares. Ten years ago he wrote a book titled Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.
Waldfogel is actually not against giving gifts at Christmas. He just thinks they ought to be good gifts. He thinks most of the billions of dollars that we Americans spend on gifts each year is wasted and benefits nobody because it buys junk that nobody wants or needs. If you want to give him a gift, he says, “Why don’t you do something good for someone else and say it’s in my name, and everyone’s happy.”
That is the essence of the Advent Conspiracy. It’s about worshipping Christ better by spending less on some gifts, investing ourselves more deeply in our relationships, and loving all by doing good in Christ’s name for those Christ calls the least of our brothers and sisters.
The Advent Conspiracy is not a campaign against Christmas. It is not even a campaign against gift giving. It is a campaign against mindless adherence to cultural norms, and wasting valuable resources on meaningless junk.
The campaign also has a positive side. It is for the joyous celebration of our Savior’s birth. It is for giving thoughtful, meaningful gifts to those who are close to you, whose needs and wants you know. And it is for giving generously to others who have so very little.
Let’s talk money. Last year, retail sales during the holiday season set a record of $707.5 billion. Let’s put figure that in perspective. This year, Americans were expected to spend $490 million on Halloween costumes for their pets.
Do these numbers tell you that something is seriously wrong with our society? The creators of the Advent Conspiracy talk about consumer religion, the religion of the marketplace, the religion of the shopping mall, the religion of people who thoughtlessly enslave themselves to destructive cultural idols.
Some years ago social scientists coined a new term for this sickness. The term is affluenza. It’s a mental and physical illness caused by the constant pursuit of more stuff. Remember the last time you had the flu, and you couldn’t stop throwing up? When you have affluenza, you can’t stop shopping. You feel healthy only when you are spending and acquiring.
You can get the 24-hour flu, but there is no 24-hour version of affluenza. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it permanently. You’ll fight this disease the rest of your life.
A century ago, people suffered from a disease that caused their bodies to waste away. Today we know that disease as tuberculosis. Back then it was called consumption. Friends, we are dying of consumption. It is causing us to waste away in body and mind and spirit. It is killing us. And unless we take the cure, it will destroy our society.
Affluenza-style consumer religion says that love is measured by the size of the gifts you buy for people. If that’s the case, you had better spend a lot, or people will begin to think you’re not a loving person, you’re a Scrooge. The unwritten rule is that love has a dollar sign on it, and the bigger the dollar sign, the more you love the person you’ve giving it to.
Big gift, big love. Little gift, little love. No gift, no love. It’s so very simple.
A modest Christmas for a typical family can cost $600 or $700 for gifts alone. Call it a $1,000 Christmas, altogether.
Bill McKibben raised a stir a few years ago when he began advocating what he called the Hundred Dollar Holiday. McKibben is a social activist, so he’s used to taking a lot of heat. But he got scorched for suggesting that people cut their holiday spending by 90 percent.
We are so self-centered. We think the gift is about the giver. It’s not about the giver. It’s about the one who receives the gift.
That’s what makes good gifts good. Good gifts delight the person who receives them. And the delight isn’t just in the thing itself. The delight is in knowing that someone knows you well enough to be sure that this is what would delight you and cares enough to track it down and give it to you.
That’s one of the reasons it’s more blessed to give than to receive. Because giving moves the spotlight off of you and onto the other person. We self-centeredly want to make it about us, about the giver. But gifts are not about the giver. Gifts are about the one who receives them.
That’s why thoughtful gift shopping is so difficult. You’ll know it when you see it, but you may do a lot of looking before you find it. Once you’ve found it, you delight in knowing how much delight it will give to the person who receives it. Both of you delight in the gift – but only because you know the gift is about the recipient, not the giver.
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If what I have just said is true, then God’s good giving to us is not about God but about us. Actually, it is very much about God, but God makes it about us, by loving us and by giving good gifts to us. And the greatest gift of all is the gift of God’s presence, supremely revealed to us in Jesus.
Next Sunday we’ll talk less about the giving of presents with a “ts” on the end, meaning material gifts, and more about the giving of presence with a “ce” on the end, meaning the giving of your very self.
Because that’s what God gives us at Christmas – God’s presence, God’s very self.
“Spend less” is a message preached Dec. 8, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood. The scripture reading for the day is Luke 1.5-151, 68-79