Gifts of Wisdom and Grace, Luke 2:25-32

Ever had one of those embarrassing situations where you get a late Christmas card, say on December 23 or 24, or you get an unexpected gift from someone who was not on your list. It’s too late to reciprocate without it being obvious that it’s an afterthought. Or you get something of much less or much more value than the gift you have for someone. Awkward. But is a gift really a gift if something of equal value is expected in return?

What about God’s gift of Jesus to us? Is that a gift we deserved or could possibly match with something in kind? Not a chance because the supreme gift at Bethlehem is a gift of grace. It is unmerited, unearned, for no reason – just because God’s middle name is “Grace.”

That’s one of the big differences between God and Santa Claus. You know the song that says, “You better watch out, you better not pout, you better not cry I’m telling you why. He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice?” The clear implication is that the Jolly Old Elf only brings good gifts to the Nice. And that’s the reason we start celebrating Christmas in October or November now – it gives parents and teachers more time to extort good behavior out of kids who are anxiously waiting, not for Jesus, but for a new X-Box.

By contrast, the gift of the Christ child comes without bribes or a big price tag. It is one of those more-than-we-deserve or ever expected gifts, and those who recognize it are blessed indeed. There’s a little known addition to the Christmas story in Luke because it comes after the end of what we normally read as “the Christmas story”. We usually read as far in Luke 2 to get all the characters present at the manger scene, except for those late arriving kings, and we stop there at verse 16. But Luke continues the birth story later in chapter 2.

Luke 2:25-32 tells the story of the baby Jesus being brought to the temple to be consecrated when he was just 8 days old. His parents made an offering of a pair of doves or 2 young pigeons, the simple gift of peasants, all they could afford. And then Luke tells us,
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon has spent his life looking for the Messiah. He allows God’s spirit to put him in the right place at the right time, in the Temple, to fulfill that purpose. And when Simeon holds baby Jesus in his arms he finds the peace that only comes when we are true to our life purpose and persistent enough to follow our dreams till they come true. Because Simeon’s deepest desire is fulfilled, his life is complete and he tells God he is ready now to die in peace.

I pray for that kind of satisfaction when my time here on earth is over. Death is very hard for those who have unfinished business in their lives but much easier for those who are at peace. This is probably a poor analogy but some of us can relate anything to football. The last few minutes of a football game can either be very exciting or pretty boring. Which it is depends on who’s ahead and who has the ball. If the team that is behind has the ball they will do anything they can to prolong the game – call time out, run out of bounds, spike the ball to stop the clock, in order to make the game last as long as possible so they can try and score enough points to win. They are not satisfied to let the game end because their purpose has not been fulfilled. But if the team that is ahead has the ball it’s a totally different story. They will wait as long as possible to run every play, keep the ball on the ground and inbounds so the clock won’t stop, and finally just get in what is called the victory formation and kneel down and let time expire, because they are satisfied with what the scoreboard says.

Simeon was wise enough to know that his life purpose was accomplished. He had found the promised salvation of his people, but much more than that, Simeon is wise enough to realize that God’s good gift is not just for the Jews but is for all the world. He says, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles (which means everybody else in the world who is not a Jew), and for Glory to the people of Israel.” It’s the same message the angels gave the shepherds: “we are bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

No matter how old we are, we all need mentors—people who can teach us things we need to know. Mary goes to her older cousin Elizabeth for advice, Joseph and the shepherds are mentored by angels, and Simeon is a great mentor for all of us because he understands the scope of what God’s grace is all about. Who are your mentors? Mentors don’t have to be old. Isaiah tells us “a little child shall lead them.” My grandkids teach me all the time about what unconditional love and joy are all about. Older people like Nelson Mandela teach us what it’s like to love and forgive even after 27 years of imprisonment, most of it at hard labor. Think of the bloodshed Mandela and others working with him prevented by finding a peaceful way to end the evils of racism and Apartheid.

Grace is the gift of salvation for all people, a freely given no-return-expected gift. Grace is one of those words that are hard to define, but we know graciousness when we see it. For example, in the Exodus story, when the Hebrews came to the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit, they were trapped, facing certain death until the waters of the sea were parted and they were able to cross on dry land. And then when the Egyptian chariots and horses and soldiers tried to follow them the seas closed up and drowned them all. That part of the story is in the Bible, but another story says that God was away on business that day and left the angels in charge. And when God came back he found the angels high-fiving each other and celebrating. They said, look Lord, we got them; we wiped out every last one of those Egyptians! The angels were expecting praise and a promotion from God for their victory, but God did not look pleased. One of the angels said, “What’s wrong, Lord. We saved your people!! Why are you not pleased?” God said, “Don’t you understand, the Egyptians are my children too?” And do you know who tells that story? The Jews. Amazing Grace prepared in the presence of all people.

Fred Craddock, one of my favorite preachers, tells of meeting a woman at coffee hour after a service where he preached. The woman was in her late 30’s. She asked Craddock about his family; so he inquired about hers. She said her parents were dead, sisters all lived out of town, and she had taken care of an elderly uncle for 8 years before he died. Craddock said, “Your uncle must have been very grateful.” “If he was he never said so,” she said. “I never heard a word of appreciation – just much swearing and complaining if his meals were late or not to his liking.” She worked at a bank and went home every day at lunch to feed him and then hurried home after work to fix his dinner. She had no dates or social life because she needed to be with her uncle. When he died, her co-workers said she must be relieved. But she said through her tears, “they didn’t get it. I loved my uncle.” A profane, demanding, cruel, oppressor who had enslaved her for 8 years, but she loved him. By the way, her name is Grace.

Adam Hamilton in his book, The Journey, writes about going to the Holy Land to research his book. One of the things he discovered there in Nazareth where Jesus grew up was that scholars believe that Mary’s family lived in a cave. A cave!!! These were dirt poor, working class folks in a little back water town that was so unimportant it didn’t even make it on the list of towns and villages in Galilee! And that’s where God chose to send his only begotten son. Amazing Grace prepared in the presence of all people.

Can you imagine the conversation at the staff meeting in Heaven when God announced his plan to come to Bethlehem as a poor peasant boy who couldn’t even afford a first-class offering at his consecration? The angels said, “Why would you do such a thing? Maybe for good, nice righteous people like Simeon, but not for all the people! They’re profane and unfaithful. They’ve stoned the prophets and broken every law you ever gave them. Have you forgotten the golden calf and the inquisition and Auschwitz and Nagasaki and the KKK, 9/11, Newtown or Columbine? They’re ungrateful and demanding, never satisfied with what you do for them. They don’t have a clue about living in peace with each other or how to take care of the earth!”

And God said, “I know, but they’re my children, and I love them.”

Receive again this night God’s gift of amazing grace – for the naughty and the nice – for all people who will receive him still. Amen.

[Jerome UMC, Christmas Eve 2013]

Christ Candle Drama

Narrator: During the 4 weeks of Advent we have had some interesting people from modern and Biblical times help us light the 4 candles on our Advent Wreath. I’m sorry to say that the guest we hoped to have tonight will not be able to be here. We wanted to have one of the Wise Men light the Christ Candle for us, but as you may recall from Matthew’s Gospel, the Wise Men didn’t actually arrive to give their gifts to Baby Jesus until he was almost two years old. So I guess we will have to get by without their wisdom tonight.

Shepherd: [enters from off stage with an attitude] Wait just a minute, please. You don’t think the Magi were the only wise people in the Christmas story, do you? I get pretty tired of those three kings getting all the publicity with their fancy robes and big camels, and expensive gifts. If it hadn’t been for a lot of other smart people the whole Christmas story would never have happened.

Narrator: Excuse me, who might you be and what are you talking about?

Shepherd: Oh, I had a small part in the Christmas story, too; I’m Eli, one of the shepherds who came to the manger.

Narrator: Oh my, I didn’t recognize you, Eli, I mean without your sheep and away from the Nativity scene and all. I’m so sorry. But what were you saying about the other wise people in the Christmas story?

Shepherd: Well, think about it. The story begins with Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. They had to be wise enough to believe God when they were told they would have a child in their old age. And their son, John the Baptist, prepared the way for Jesus and even baptized him. And what about Mary’s fiancé, Joseph? He was wise enough to believe the angel who told him Mary’s baby was really God’s son. Believe me; most guys would not have believed that story.

Narrator: I see your point. These were common ordinary people who were smart enough to trust God with some incredible ideas.

Shepherd: And that’s not all. Think about us shepherds—we didn’t have college degrees, but once we got over the shock of seeing all those angels, we were wise enough to pay attention to the biggest birth announcement in all of history. Everybody else in Bethlehem was too busy to even notice. But we heard God’s message and came running; so we got to be the very first people ever to worship the Christ child.

Narrator: You’re right, that was very wise. And now that I think about it, we’ve left out a very important wise person in this story. There was a certain young peasant girl who got some very shocking news about becoming the mother of God’s son. Mary must have been scared to death!

Shepherd: Yes, I’m sure she was. She told us she didn’t think Joseph or anyone else would believe such a wild story about her baby’s father. But she was smart enough to go to Elizabeth for advice. Mary was wise beyond her years to have the faith to say “yes” to what God was asking her to do. And because of all the wisdom from all those people the history of the world was changed forever. [Pause]

Narrator: Eli, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. Would you do us the honor of lighting the Christ Candle tonight, as we celebrate again the birth of Jesus Christ, the light of the world? [Eli lights the Christ candle and both exit.]

4th Sunday of Advent, 2013: The candle of love

Pastor: We have a special guest to help us light the 4th Advent candle today, the candle of Love. Someone we all know from the Christmas story who’s in all of our nativity scenes—Jospeh of Nazareth. Welcome to Jerome church, Joseph. Most everyone knows a couple of things about you, Joseph. We know you were a carpenter and how surprised you were when Mary gave you the big news about the baby.

Joseph: Yes, that news was really hard to wrap my mind around since we weren’t married yet. I almost lost it. But you know, once I got over that shock, I was more blown away by something even more incredible.

Pastor: Wait a minute! What could possibly be more surprising than a virgin birth?

Joseph: Well, think about it. Look at me. Do I look like a prime candidate for someone to raise God’s son?

Pastor: Well, I wasn’t going to say anything, but now that you brought it up, not really. I guess Dr. Phil might have been a better choice!

Joseph: Yes, or even someone who could afford to raise that special son in comfort and provide a good education for him. How about you, Pastor? Think how much better the schools are in Dublin than they were in Nazareth.

Pastor: Good point. I’ll get back to you on that one. But seriously, why do you think God chose you and Mary? Did everybody else turn him down?

Joseph: I’ve asked myself that a lot. We were poor as church mice – didn’t have two shekels to rub together. And we were in Bethlehem because of the new Roman tax system that was going to take a big bite out of what little we had. It made no sense.

Pastor: So, how did you make peace with the whole idea?

Joseph: I had this dream and God told me it would be OK. He said people would call our baby’s name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” When I heard that I remembered how God has always been with people who needed him the most – like the Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt, or the Exiles in Babylon. God knows that the meek and lowly need help the most. For years and years, my people waited for the Messiah to come. We believed that when the Messiah comes there will be no more suffering. But as I thought about all that history, I realized that’s not it. The truth is that God loves all of his children, especially those who need love the most. God chose simple peasant people like Mary and me to be Christ’s parents to show the world what God’s love means. It’s in places like Bethlehem, exactly where there is suffering, that’s where the Messiah comes.

Pastor: Where there is suffering, that’s where the Messiah comes. (pause) Joseph, thank you for helping us better understand the depth of God’s love. Would you do us the honor of lighting the Candle of love as we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel?”

3rd Sunday of Advent Conspiracy: Give More

[Husband is on stage looking through his calendar on his phone as wife hurries in carrying several loaded shopping bags]

H: Hey Hon, I’m looking at the calendar. We’ve got a ton of stuff going on in the next few weeks. When are we going to find the time to shop for everyone?

Wife: Don’t worry, I got some done today [she holds up the bags] and I have calculated the amount of time we can spend looking for each gift to be approximately 4.7 minutes. I’ve even added some extra time in this year so we can make everyone’s gift a bit more meaningful. That is really important to me you know.

H: Good thinking. (continues to look at phone naming his calendar engagements quickly and out loud) Office Christmas party, School play, Cookie exchange, Bake sale, Blood drive, food drive, Block party, Christmas Cantata, Shop for presents, Concert, Hockey tournament, Sports banquet, Decorate office, Decorate house, Decorate yard, [sighs to catch breath] progressive dinner

W: And don’t forget about the gift certificates for the letter carrier, and the UPS driver, and the garbage guys, and the landscapers. Oh, and we need to get those packages sent to your aunt and uncle in Florida or they won’t make it before Christmas. Let’s not forget those replacement bulbs for the outdoor lights… Can you go through the junk mail there and see if we got Christmas cards from anyone we need to add to our list. I don’t want to waste a card on anyone who won’t reciprocate!

H: [Roots through the mail and then looks again at list and calendar] Are we going to Church for Christmas?

W: I don’t think we have scheduled that yet. (notices his look of concern) What’s wrong?

H: I don’t know, I love this time of year, but something just does not seem right, (pause)… it is as if (continues to look through mail) something’s missing.

W: I know, it’s that card from the Johnsons. Keep looking

H: (Husband continues to look in the mail and finds flyer on alternative giving) What’s this?

W: Not another bill I hope!

H: No, this flyer on gift giving. [Holding up catalog from Heifer Project]

W: I don’t know, what does it say?

H: This is great! It says, “Simplify your gift giving this year!” I like the sound of that! (Opens flyer) This would be great for your brother… “Because you want to get someone’s goat.”

W: You want to get my brother a goat?

H: I don’t want to get your brother a goat, I want to buy one in his name for someone living in Rwanda. It says here, a goat provides milk to drink and sell. One goat can do more good for people who really need it than that combination universal TV remote/ hair trimmer we were planning on getting your brother.

W: You may have a point there, let me see that. (Woman looks through flyer and stops excitedly) How about this idea? “Because you are warm and caring.”

(Husband pumps himself up, thinking she is talking about him.)

W: This would be great for my mother!
(Husband pantomimes shaking head and saying a big NO. Wife gives him a dirty look)

H: I mean yes dear!

W: (continues reading) Give someone a warm fuzzy feeling with a blanket, providing warmth, comfort and most importantly the feeling that someone cares. 2 blankets for 10 dollars.
How much was that deluxe anniversary edition of The History of Chia Pets we were going to get your Aunt Mable?

H: $49.99

W: (shakes head) Wow, we could change our gift giving habits and do a lot of good this year, for not much money. Your Aunt always gives to charities, and she would be the first to say she doesn’t really need anything. She would love this idea…and I bet other people on our list would too.

H: Great idea!

(Wife hurriedly starts grabbing all the bags)

H: What are you doing?

W: If I hurry I can return this stuff before the Mall closes. [She exits]

H: [Pause and walk to Advent Wreath] Our Advent prayer for all of us this year is that we find the true Joy of Christmas by worshiping fully and giving more gifts that bring real peace and joy. As I light the 3rd Advent Candle, the Candle of Joy, please join in singing the first three verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

[Jerome UMC, December 15, 2013, with thanks to my friend, Kathryn Manecke, co-author of this skit]

“Top 5 Reasons We Spend Too Much on Christmas,” Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-12

“Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” (Isa. 55:2)

Isaiah raised that question 2500 years ago, but it is as relevant today as it was then. American consumers in the Christmas season last year spent $579 Billion. As individuals and a society, most of us agree that we spend way too much on Christmas. More than we intend to, and no matter how often we say we are going to change, we still overindulge. The question is why. Pastor Dave raised an interesting question in this month’s church newsletter. He asked how many of us can even remember what gifts we got for Christmas last year. Many of them are probably obsolete already or no longer work or fit or have gone out of style as part of planned obsolescence.

Why do we spend money on that which does not satisfy? Isaiah was addressing Hebrew exiles in Babylon, warning them not to pursue false gods that could not satisfy their deepest spiritual needs; so that’s different than our over consumptive culture – or is it?

$579 Billion! Pastor Greg Holder, one of the founders of the Advent Conspiracy movement, points out that a very small fraction of that $579 billion could provide clean water for every person in the entire world. Holder explains why thousands of churches like ours have joined the conspiracy this way: “Radical consumerism is the fastest growing religion in the world promising transcendence, power, pleasure and fulfillment even as it demands complete devotion.” Consumerism is like the false gods Isaiah was warning his people about in Babylon. Both require making a choice about what and whom we worship. Holder says, “Part of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus is saying ‘no’ to over-spending and to over consumption.”

So today’s theme for week two of the Advent Conspiracy is simply “Spend Less,” and the secret to doing so is to answer Isaiah’s question of why we spend our hard-earned money on things that don’t really satisfy.

With apologies to David Letterman, I want to tackle that question by offering a list of the Top Five Reasons we spend too much on Christmas. Yes, I know Letterman does a Top 10 list, but we’re cutting back this year, and the sermon would be too long with a top 10.

Reason #5 why we spend too much on Christmas: Tradition: We all have traditional ways we celebrate the season from special decorations to favorite food and activities. When I was a kid my friends were jealous of me because Santa always came to our house on Christmas Eve. Our family would go for a drive to look at Christmas lights, and lo and behold, every year, the Jolly Old Elf would have our presents under the tree when we returned. I didn’t even know for years that most people had to wait till Christmas morning, because opening gifts on Christmas Eve was how we always did it at my house. We tried Christmas morning one year and no one liked it because “We never did it that way before.”

The quantity and way we shop for Christmas today is a tradition that has changed dramatically over the years. It’s only very recently that on-line shopping means that UPS and FedEx deliver far more gifts that Santa. It seems like Black Friday has been a holiday tradition forever right? But it’s only been in the last 8-10 years that Black Friday has become the shopping frenzy that it is today. My point is that traditions change over time, they begin somewhere, and that means they can be changed if we choose to do so. I didn’t say that’s easy. Suggest a change in a tradition that is well established in your family, and you may be treated like a Grinch. But that’s no excuse for not asking where our traditions came from and if we want to continue overspending, just because we’ve gotten into the habit of ALWAYS doing so.

Reason #4: Boredom: I was struck recently that this idea showed up as an aside in a Scott Turrow murder mystery, Identical, where a private investigator is tailing someone at a shopping mall and asks the rhetorical question, “When did shopping become a recreational activity?” Sometimes we shop because we’re bored and have nothing better to do.

Have you ever noticed that kids with an I-pad, I-pod, x-box, a Wii, a DVD player and most other electronic devices on the market, and a room full of low-tech toys frequently bemoan the fact that they’re bored? It’s not their fault. They’re a product of a society that wants constant activity and entertainment.

I heard an astronomer recently talking about how modern humans don’t appreciate our humble role in the vastness of God’s universe because light pollution means we can’t see the stars and appreciate the infinite scope of the creation that stretches for millions of light years in every direction. We also can’t hear the voice of God until we learn to be quiet and listen. How many of us will wait on hold for an hour or more to talk to a customer service representative about a problem, but can’t stand 10 minutes of time alone with ourselves and God? Shopping and busyness as cures for boredom will not satisfy our hunger for the peace only God can give.

Reason #3: Selfishness/Instant Gratification is too slow. We have been convinced that we must have all the 4G technologies to save a few nano-seconds here and there. But part of worshiping fully is learning to wait. One of the famous verses from Isaiah is the one in chapter 40 where he encourages the Hebrew Exiles to be patient. They are turning to false gods in Babylon because they are tired of waiting for their God to deliver them from captivity. Isaiah 40:31 says, “Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like Eagles.” That verse reminds me of one of the most amazing things about Nelson Mandela–that he faithfully waited on God for 27 years of imprisonment, much of it at hard labor, and emerged to be one of the greatest examples of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation the world has ever known.

The prophet Isaiah is where we get a lot of the Hebrew scriptures we read and sing at Christmas that foretell the coming of the Messiah to ransom captive Israel. But guess what – it was 500 years from the time Isaiah wrote those words until Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And we go crazy when we have to wait a few minutes in traffic! The key to being at peace no matter what we have or what happens is understanding what Isaiah means when he says, “God’s thoughts are not the same as ours” (55:8). God’s perspective on time and what satisfies the human soul is very different from ours.

Our seven-year old grandson impressed me with a question recently. He was looking at something in the house and noticed the tag that said, “Made in China.” He asked, “Why is everything made in China?” It’s because cheaper goods means we can afford to buy more stuff. But is it really cheaper if we look at the real cost? The loss of American jobs, the poor conditions of the workers who produce those goods in China and other low-wage countries, the pollution to the air in China and the environmental impact of burning tons of fossil fuel required to ship all those goods half way around the world?

The root problem of instant gratification is self-centeredness. The solution to that problem at Christmas is to remember whose birthday it is. Christmas is not about me or you—it’s about Jesus. That simple reminder puts things in perspective when we realize that Christmas is about the gift of eternal life. All those things we spend too much on don’t satisfy – because they are not eternal and they won’t last.

Reason #2: Ads/Peer Pressure (The devil made me do it). They say we are what we eat. We also are likely to do what we think. That’s why Isaiah encourages us to “forsake our unrighteous thoughts (55:7)” and adopt God’s thoughts which are incredibly higher than ours; because our thoughts lead to actions. Jesus warns us that looking lustfully at another person is just as bad as committing adultery (Matt. 5:27) and being angry is as wrong as murder (Matt. 5:22). Aren’t you glad we don’t take that literally? Got your attention, though, didn’t it? The point is that our actions begin in our thinking, and if we are aware of negative emotions like anger, lust, greed, and gluttony we are much better able to control negative actions, like over consuming things that don’t satisfy.

Most of us know we should spend less at Christmas and plan to do so; but then the clever advertising kicks in, or jealously of someone who has the newest toy or gadget we just can’t live without, peer pressure. We find ourselves doing the very thing we have vowed not to do, and we end up unsatisfied and disappointed when the bills roll in come January. The problem is that we are persuaded not just by logic and reason; we are also powerfully influenced by our emotions which operate on a sub-conscious level.

So advertisers play upon our emotions and children are especially vulnerable because they don’t have the rational ability to see through the phony claims advertisers make. You know the ones — that if we just buy all the right toys, wear the latest fashion, drive the hottest car, and take the latest anti-aging pill all of our problems in life will magically disappear. I’m not the only one who falls for that stuff am I?

Advertisers are very clever and sneaky, but we don’t get off the hook by blaming unethical marketing or peer pressure for our overspending. We are still accountable for our choices and actions. The comedian Flip Wilson years ago had a famous line that he used to excuse every mistake he made. He would say, “The Devil Made me Do it.” Yes, there are forces of evil and temptation in the world. But to surrender as a victim to the persuasion of others is a betrayal of our God-given ability to be responsible citizens of God’s kingdom and of the world. We are not weaklings who are defenseless against temptation. We are created in God’s image, with the ability to make good choices and to say ‘no’ to the false gods of radical consumerism.

Saying a firm but loving ‘no’ to ourselves or our kids is not fun, but it is so much better than spending more money we on things that will not and cannot ultimately satisfy. And that brings us to reason #1, which is at the core of all of the others.

Reason #1 why we spend too much on Christmas: Fear and Insecurity/Lack of Faith.
We spend time and money on things that don’t satisfy because we are searching for a feeling of success and purpose in our lives that only God can provide. But the more stuff we have, the less satisfied we feel, and the more we want. Psalm 23 begins with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The essence of being satisfied is to stop wanting more of what doesn’t satisfy. And the good news is that Isaiah tells us that real satisfaction is free. 55:1 says, “Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” How? Matthew 6:33 says, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else will be added to you.” What better time could there be than Christmas to put God’s kingdom first? Isaiah puts it this way in verse 6: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” Christmas is that time when God draws near to us in human form.

The choice of how we respond to the gift of Christmas and how we spend our resources is a critical choice, even a matter of life and death. That choice is so critical because if we spend less and spend wisely, we have more to give to those who are truly in need, for whom food and socks may literally be a matter of survival in a long cold winter. The ability to give more is captured in an old slogan from the 60’s that says, “Live simply so others may simply live.” The choice to spend less is also a matter of life and death for us, a matter of eternal life and death. Verse 3 of Isaiah 55 says, “Give ear to me; listen, that you may live.”

To be really satisfied in life is to be set free—free from traditions that no longer serve us, from boredom, free from selfishness and peer pressure, and free from fear and insecurity. One of the many great quotes I read this week following the death of Nelson Mandela sums it up very well. Mandela said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Does spending less and fighting the forces of consumerism seem impossible to you? It is a huge challenge, but let me share a personal story that gives me hope. I do remember one gift I got for Christmas last year because it was a very touching and pleasant surprise. A member of our family who really loves all the gift giving of the holiday kept asking me what I wanted for Christmas. I really didn’t need or want anything, but I decided to suggest they give a donation to Heifer Project in my name, to support a needy family somewhere in the world. I really didn’t think that kind of alternative Christmas giving would be warmly received. I have never been so happy to be totally wrong in my life. Not only did they love the idea and bought a flock of geese and chickens in my honor for a family in Central America, they liked the idea so much they made another donation of farm animals in their own name. And they are doing the same thing again this year.

Never underestimate God’s power to change us and the world. Greg Holder of the Advent Conspiracy movement put it this way. “The story of Christmas changed the world once, and it can do it again.”

Prayer: O God, our Christmas wish for this year is that you will change our hearts so we can help transform the world. Save us from the temptation to pursue those things that cannot satisfy our hunger for salvation and peace. Help us listen to your voice as you draw near to us again this Christmas so that we will put your kingdom and your righteousness first and live the life of eternal peace you want for us and all of creation. Amen.

Advent II Drama: Wisdom and Peace

REPORTER: Good morning friends, and thanks for tuning into WJER’s Advent Update. Today’s special guest is Balthazar, one of the three Magi or Wise Men who are famous for delivering the very first Christmas presents ever to Baby Jesus. Mr. Balthazar, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us.

BALTHAZAR: It’s my pleasure, Carol. This time of year always brings back fond memories.

REPORTER: And what is your favorite memory of that first Christmas? Was it the long hard journey to Bethlehem? Or perhaps it was seeing the love Mary and Joseph had for their little son?

BALTHAZAR: All of those things were very special, but there was another critical moment on our trip that sticks out most clearly in my mind, even after all these years. We were passing through a small city called Sychar, and like most cities there was a market in the city center. We stopped to water our camels, and one of the traders offered us a whole wagon load of furs and wonderful wool blankets in exchange for the gold and frankincense we were taking to the Christ child. We had been through some very hard cold nights on our trip, and those blankets looked soooo good. People always think lots of heat when they think of deserts and camels. It’s hot out there in the daytime, but it gets very cold at night that time of the year.

REPORTER: And you’d been on the road for a long time, hadn’t you?

BALTHAZAR: Yes, almost two years. Jesus was a toddler and almost potty-trained by the time we found him. So we were getting discouraged, wondering if it was all a wild goose chase following that star. I was ready to buy those blankets and furs and get warm.

REPORTER: So what happened?

BALTHAZAR: Well, Caspar and I were ready to trade, but Melchior, the third magi proved he was the real wise one. He reminded us that this Christmas journey wasn’t about us, it was about Jesus. The gold and frankincense and myrrh were specifically meant for a new king, and our hearts would not have found peace until we delivered those special gifts to that special child. And do you know what? The star we were following was brighter and our travel easier after we made the choice to do what God had called us to do–instead of what was easier for us.

REPORTER: Thanks for sharing your story with us Balthazar. [Balthazar exits and Reporter walks to Advent Wreath]. Balthazar’s story is an important lesson for us. We find God’s true peace when we remember whose birthday it is, and do what God has called us to do. So, on this second Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of Peace as we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

[Written for worship at Jerome United Methodist Church, December 8, 2013]

Advent Conspiracy

Jerome United Methodist Church has enrolled this year as a co-conspirator in a national movement to reclaim the celebration of Christmas from Cultural Consumerism. The themes for the Advent Conspiracy are to Worship-fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All. As part of that theme, what follows is a skit I wrote for the lighting of the first Advent Candle.

Steve: As is the tradition in most churches, on this first Sunday of Advent, we light a candle on the Advent wreath to remind us of the hope Christ’s birth brings at this time of the year and all year long.
[Steve’s cell phone rings and he looks at the phone, looks around at others asking if it’s their phone, and then sheepishly admits it’s his.]
Excuse me, this is from a friend I’ve been trying to reach for a several days, and I’m really concerned about him.
Hey Frank, what’s up? No, it’s not really the best time. It’s Sunday morning — I’m in church. Is everything OK? Where are you?

What? You’re still shopping! Since Friday morning? You’ve got to be kidding me! Wait, that means you missed the game yesterday with the black and blue, I mean the maize and blue? Frank, come on man, there are no bargains worth 50 hours of shopping and missing the biggest game of the year. What were you thinking? [Pause to listen]
Whoa, hold on a minute – there are a lot of people here who aren’t believing this conversation. Let me put you on speaker phone so they won’t think I’m just making this up. [Pushes speaker phone button].
OK, now say that again, slowly.

Frank: [excitedly, over mic from off stage] You wouldn’t believe the fantastic bargains, Steve. We got a new 60 inch 3-D TV for half price and then of course we needed new furniture for my man cave so I can watch it in comfort. You’ll have to come over next week for the Big 10 Championship game! And Menard’s had all kinds of stuff marked way down for the improvements we’ve been wanting to do on our house. I can’t believe how much we’ve saved. And there are still great bargains left, too. You can’t afford to miss this. Can you cut the sermon short? How soon can you get out of church?

Steve: Ah, Thanks, Frank, but it sounds like you’ve done enough shopping for both of us. I still can’t believe you missed the best day of college football ever!

Frank: Oh, they had it on a hundred TV’s at Best Buy. Not a problem.

Steve: Whatever. I don’t think that counts. I am confused, though– all that stuff still doesn’t sound like it would take two and a half days to buy. Did you get Christmas presents for everyone on your list too? I mean that’s sort of what this crazy weekend is all about, isn’t it?

Frank: Oh, we’re just now getting to our Christmas list. Macy’s and Kohl’s had such great sales on clothes that we spent hours looking for things that fit. I think clothes sizes are running a lot smaller than they used to. My normal sizes just don’t seem to fit anymore. We didn’t even take time to go out to eat. Do you know Pizza Hut will deliver right to the dressing room at Macy’s?

Steve: No, [shaking head and rolling eyes] I didn’t know that, Frank. Is there an app for that? You know, I’m worn out just thinking about this. So where are you now?

Frank: Oh, we’re at Big Lots. We spent so much money on all those great bargains we have to cut some corners now on gifts for family and friends. I better get back to shopping, Steve, just wanted to let you know what great stuff you’re missing. [He hangs up]

Steve: That’s funny, Frank, I was just going to say the very same thing to you. You didn’t just miss a great game; you’re missing the whole point of Christmas! Frank? Frank? I guess he’s gone – I’ll have to tell him later what he’s missing—like the whole purpose of the season, don’t you think?

[Puts phone away and walks back to Advent Wreath] Wow! Do you believe that? I sure hope Jesus doesn’t get lost in all that stuff. I’m so sorry for that interruption. I don’t know about you, but after that, I think we need to pray. Please pray with me.

O God, remind us again that Advent is a season when we prepare our hearts and minds for the birth of the Messiah. It’s a time to worship and ponder the true reason for this season; to give thanks for all of your blessings. And one of the great gifts we receive from you, O God, especially at Christmas is the gift of Hope. Without hope, we cannot make it through the dark and difficult seasons of our lives. So bless us with your spirit as we light the Candle of Hope, in the name of the coming, present, living and Eternal Christ. Amen.

As I light the candle of Hope, please join in singing the first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”