Joseph, who becomes the adoptive father of Jesus, initially wants nothing to do with him. Joseph has good reason to believe that his bride-to-be has been unfaithful to him. He resolves to wash his hands of this woman and the brat she will bring into the world.
Then he has a dream. An angel tells him what he should do. Accept Mary as your wife. Accept her child as your own. Name him Jesus, meaning “God saves.” For this is what the prophet meant when he wrote about a child named Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”
God saves by being with us. God makes a personal investment in us by becoming one of us, walking with us, meeting us face to face, looking us in the eye.
We call this incarnation. You know how “chili con carne” means “chili with meat”? Incarnation means God with flesh on. God becomes incarnated in Jesus, present to us in a personal way in Jesus. In the words of the Apostle Paul, God empties himself in taking human form. (Philippians 2.7)
Surely God pours all of the divine self that is possible into this human form, but God becomes severely limited in doing so. The eternal Christ who becomes Jesus has to humble himself, Paul says. Literally as well as figuratively, he must lower himself to human level. (Philippians 2.8)
We can’t pretend to fathom how it works. It is beyond our understanding how God can be present to us in a singular way in the form of a limited human being while at the same time being everywhere present to everything and everyone as Lord of the universe.
It doesn’t cost God a dime to do this. Rather, it costs God everything. God comes to us as an infant wearing a diaper. The experience must be, in the fullest sense of the term, humiliating.
Think of some dignified grandfatherly or grandmotherly figure in your life. Now imagine that person humbling himself or herself to meet you as a little person in a diaper. That is only a fraction of the degradation God must endure in coming to us as Jesus. It’s only the start. It ends with Jesus, as naked and as helpless as the day he was born, dying on a cross, out of love for us.
No wonder Paul exclaims, “Thanks to be God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9.15)
The best gifts that we can give are somewhat like God’s gift. They are incarnational. They are personal. They may not cost much money. But they are very expensive in terms of our personal investment, all out of love for the one who receives them.
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We have turned it into a consumer event, but God coming to us as the infant Jesus is fundamentally a relational event. It is a giving of self.
The creators of the Advent Conspiracy suggest that we can worship God more fully by imitating such giving. They invite us to spend less on material gifts, to give more of ourselves to our loved ones and to love all by buying one less gift for a loved one and giving that money to a cause that will help people in great need.
In this way, we can begin to embody God’s love for all people. We can make our love real in our actions.
The Advent Conspiracy leaders tell a story to explain why it’s necessary for us to make our love real in such concrete ways. It’s a story that also explains why the initial focus of the movement was to drill wells in the name of Jesus.
They had gone to Africa with representatives of Living Water International to see firsthand the need for safe drinking water in developing nations. In Liberia, they met a village chief who told them that many of his people had died because of illnesses they got from their scummy, contaminated water source.
We will drill a well for you, they told the chief. We will do this in the name of Jesus.
The chief didn’t celebrate. He didn’t whoop and holler. He didn’t even smile. He just looked at them. They wondered whether he had misunderstood what they said. No, he understood. Then why wasn’t he happy? Because, he said, “Others have made promises in the name of this Jesus, but they were never kept.”
Others had promised to provide clean water in the name of Jesus, but none had ever provided it. Their intentions were good, but good intentions are never enough. People were still dying from water-borne diseases. To the people of this village, the name of Jesus meant only broken promises.
Better, perhaps, that we should never say the name of Jesus than say the name and fail to follow through. Better, perhaps, that we should fail to represent Jesus at all than to misrepresent him by failing to imitate him in our actions.
Let me tell you two stories that are so powerful that I am blown away by them. One story involves a fellow named Thornton. He is the son of a friend of mine. Thornton had a friend named Phil, who had kidney disease.
Phil was on the transplant list for several years, but his condition deteriorated to the point that he was going to die without an immediate transplant. Thornton donated one of his kidneys to save his friend Phil.
The second story is more complicated. It involves a young Gardner woman named Alli Shappel. You may have heard about her Thursday night on Fox4 News. She wanted to donate a kidney to her childhood pastor. But they weren’t a good match. So she volunteered to become what’s known as an “altruistic donor,” meaning that she would donate a kidney to a stranger, anyone in need.
That set in motion a chain involving four donors and four recipients, including her pastor. The kidney she donated didn’t go to her pastor, but it still saved him from dying of kidney disease.
Her pastor is Carl Olson, whom I’ve known for a dozen years. He’s pastor of First Baptist Church of Paola. I celebrate Alli’s gift that helped save Carl and others, and Thornton’s gift that saved Phil. But the enormity of these gifts weighs heavily upon me.
Obviously, there are limits to such heroic measures. While you are alive, you can donate a kidney only once. But doing it once is such an incredible act of giving.
The Advent Conspiracy is about spending less on frivolous things so that we can give more of ourselves in important ways. One important way is giving of ourselves to loved ones. Another is giving to others whom God calls us to love in a less intimate way.
It’s not enough to love those who love you, Jesus says. (Matthew 5.16) Everybody does that. God holds you to a higher standard. God wants you to love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22.39)
And who is your neighbor? Anyone in need. (Luke 10.25 37) That’s the gist of the story Jesus tells about the Good Samaritan. You show your love for God by showing your love for those in need.
Jesus says, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
When we do good to someone, Jesus takes it personally. God takes all of our actions personally. That’s how important we are to God. And that’s why our behavior is important. Everything we do has consequences beyond ourselves. When we give to the least of our brothers and sisters, we give to God.
That is why on Christmas Eve you’ll have another opportunity to give to the Emergency Fund at Edgerton Elementary School. It helps teachers and administrators help children in need – when they show up in winter in shabby shoes, or no socks, or a shirt in tatters, or when they need underwear or soap or a toothbrush.
Children are truly the least of these. As much as we pay lip service to our children in this society, we don’t seem to value them very highly. If we truly valued them, would we constantly bicker about school funding? Would our foster care system and other safety nets so consistently fail them?
This offering is one way of showing the world that Christmas means more to us than brightly wrapped packages under the tree. It means the birth of God’s love in us. It means that we love God, and because we love God, we love all others who – like us – are created in the image of God.
It means not only that we have good intentions, but that we will make these intentions a reality through our actions.
We believe that when our hearts are oriented toward Jesus, the rest of the tenets of the Advent Conspiracy will fall into place. The way we spend, give and love will radically change when it comes from a place of true worship. And that, as we said at the start of the Advent season, is what life is all about. Life is a way of worship, a way of living to the glory of God.
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Early Christians calculated that Jesus was born on December 25, which was then the winter solstice. We just celebrated the solstice yesterday, on December 21. The date has drifted because of imperfections in the old Julian calendar.
The winter solstice is the first official day of winter. It’s the shortest day and the longest night of the year. From the summer solstice in June, the days have grown ever shorter, day after day. Now, at the winter solstice, the sun shines the least hours of all the year. As dark as it is, this is actually a day of promise. It is the day the sun is reborn. From this day forward, the days will gradually get longer.
It is truly the birthday of the Son – not the Victorious Sun of Roman mythology but the Son of Righteousness seen by the Hebrew prophets.
Symbolically, this is the perfect time for Jesus to be born. Our lives can’t get any darker than this. His birth offers us hope. In the deepest darkness of winter, God comes to us in person.
Whatever date it was, on whatever long night it was, Jesus was born at the midnight of our lives. He comes to us when we need him the most. God always comes to us when we need God the most.
Have a truly blessed Christmas!
“Love all” was preached on Dec. 22, 2019 at Edgerton United Methodist Church by the Rev. James A. Hopwood. Fourth Sunday of Advent, Matthew 1:18-25