“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.