“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.

Comfort, Isaiah 40:1-11

I looked at my calendar about 14 days ago with a start.  I should have known – there was plenty of evidence–frost on the pumpkin, darkness at 5 pm, another notch on my senior citizen belt with an October birthday, the wonderful sound of silence when the political ads stopped, and the smart alek neighbors who got their Christmas decorations up during Indian summer.  The evidence was way beyond a reasonable doubt that we are well into fall – stewardship campaigns, non-stop Christmas advertising – and yet, still in denial about the waning days of 2011, I was surprised to realize that Advent was approaching like a runaway freight train!  Yikes, I’d better get ready.  As an old boy scout, I’m supposed to always be prepared, but somehow Advent and Christmas always get here before I’m ready.

That’s rather appropriate actually.  God has a way of sneaking up on us and surprising us when we least expect it, and yet we are also ironically very impatient.  Stores open earlier and earlier every year for black Friday shoppers, creeping further and further into black Thursday, as in Thanksgiving Day.  Is nothing sacred?

I was on a retreat many years ago about this time of year at a beautiful camp in the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania.  I woke up early on the Sunday morning I was there and decided to drive to a spot where I was told I could witness a beautiful sunrise.  Not being a morning person, sunrises are rare occurrences for me, and they are always better in the mountains or on the sea shore; so I hopped into my car and drove a short distance to the designated scenic overlook.  It was very chilly in the pre-dawn darkness, and I had not had my morning caffeine fix; so I began to shiver and grow impatient.  I didn’t know what time sunrise was supposed to happen, but it wasn’t happening fast enough to suit me.   I soon grew weary of waiting and decided to forego the sunrise and head back to a warm lodge and a hot breakfast.  As I drove down the mountain road, of course, I caught the first glimpse of the fiery red ball of the sun peaking through the leafless trees in my rear view mirror.  I turned around at the first opportunity and drove quickly back up to the lookout point.  Of course, the sun had already crested the horizon by the time I got back there.   I missed the most beautiful part of the sunrise.  I was too impatient – couldn’t wait a few minutes for something I knew was going to happen because it had happened every day since the beginning of time.  I was disappointed – and then I laughed as I remembered what day it was.  It was the first Sunday of Advent – the season of waiting and preparation.

How hard it is to wait – even for things we know are guaranteed to come. How hard it is to hope for things to be better when there is so little sign of change or improvement in a bad situation.  We take years and decades to dig ourselves into difficult situations and expect instant gratification or solutions.

“Comfort, comfort my people” say these familiar words from Isaiah 40.  I don’t know about you, but when I hear these words read or sung in Handel’s great oratorio, “Messiah,” my attention is drawn immediately to the word “comfort.”  Don’t we all like comfort?  We like to be in our comfort zones.  We indulge in comfort food when we are stressed – when the teen-age driver is out later than curfew, or our team falls behind in a big game – bring on those nachos and chocolate chip cookies.  When we are sad or lonely or grieving, we long for a comforting word,  an understanding smile or a warm hug.    Comfort is good – and God knows there is much in these difficult economic times of uncertainty that we need and want to be comforted about.

But there’s another little word in that opening verse of Isaiah 40 that caught my eye as I studied this familiar text this time—the tiny little two letter word, ‘my.’  ‘My’ or ‘mine’ can be a negative word when used to express selfish or greedy feelings.  We all know that right after ‘no’ one of the first words young toddlers learn is ‘mine.’   But ‘my’ can also be a word of extreme comfort and love.  To talk about my spouse or my children or my family or my church or my country implies a bond of affection – and that’s the way Isaiah uses the word in this text.  “Comfort, O comfort MY people, says your God.”  God is claiming and reclaiming the children of Israel after a long and difficult period of estrangement, alienation and rebellion.

Anyone else have any estrangement and alienation in your family?  Any siblings or in-laws or children who aren’t speaking to any or all members of the family?  We talk alot about dysfunctional families, but my experience is that term is redundant.  Families are made up of fallible human beings who are by definition somewhat dysfunctional.  And that includes God’s family too.  But that doesn’t mean we still don’t belong to our families.  My uncle may have been an unreasonable, arrogant, immature jerk who got mad over how my grandmother’s estate got parceled out and pouted till the day he died – but he was still part of the family.

“Comfort, MY people, says your God.”  God’s children have been rebellious.  They have ignored God’s will and God’s laws.  They put their faith in earthly kings and worldly power in the days of King David and Solomon, and the once great kingdom of Israel went downhill faster than an out-of-control bobsled.  The kingdom was split into two weaker states by political infighting and jealousy and in that weakened state had been overrun by the more powerful nations of Assyria and Babylon.  The northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria first, in 720 BCE, and 130 years later in 588 BCE, the southern kingdom of Judah, which had Jerusalem as its proud capital, was destroyed and overrun by the Babylonians.  The leaders and any people of influence were carted off to Babylon as prisoners and lived there for decades while entire generations forgot their homeland, their roots, and their God.

Imagine conquering armies invading the Buckeye state from that state up north and forcing us to live in exile in Detroit or even Ann Arbor!!!!  The people of Israel were suffering; they were in need of comfort.  They felt forgotten and abandoned by their God.  How could God allow this horrible thing to happen to God’s chosen people!!!  Surely the gods of Babylon must be better and stronger than Yahweh or this tragedy would never have happened.  Many of the exiles bowed down and worshipped the gods of Babylon and became quite comfortable in their new surroundings, having lost hope of ever returning to Jerusalem.  They turned their backs on Yahweh.

And yet, God calls them “MY people.”  We may forget who we are and whose we are, but God does not forget.  And that’s the message of Hope as we live into the Advent season again.  We may be poorer than we were a year ago or grieving the loss of health or a loved one. We may be carrying a heavy load of guilt for mistakes and poor choices we’ve made that led to bad consequences, but we are not disowned by our God. God still recognizes us and calls us to him – “comfort MY people.”

That reminds us of another great story in the Hebrew Scriptures when God’s children were in a different foreign land as slaves in Egypt.  They had been there for 400 long hard years and many had forgotten their ancestors and their God.  After 4 centuries I’m sure many of them were convinced that God had long since forgotten them.  But God has a memory and a heart for his people that is greater than anything we can imageine.  And God called Moses to go down to Egypt with a message for Pharaoh, king of Egypt.  That message was not “let those poor slaves go,” or “let those Hebrew people go free,” No, God’s message through Moses was very specific and clear.  God told Moses, “I have observed the misery of MY people who are in Egypt… I will send you to Pharaoh to bring MY people out of Egypt.”  (Exodus 3:7 & 10)  God claims and comforts his own.   God never forgets who we are and whose we are, even when we do.  And that’s reason for Hope.

But notice in this text that we don’t just get to sit back and wait passively for God’s comfort and deliverance to come.  Isaiah says, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (40:3) We are called to partner with God in our own liberation.  And that’s not easy work.  God doesn’t send us to some cushy spa or tropical paradise or comfortable suburb to do God’s work. The preparation of God’s way needs to be done in the places where God’s presence and comfort are most needed – in the wilderness – in the desert.  Where the lost and the least are, that’s where the way of the Lord needs to be prepared.   Because the comfort of God is like the children’s song about “The Magic Penny.” Remember what it says – ‘hold it tight and you won’t have any, but if you lend it, spend it, you’ll have so many they’ll roll all over the floor.”

Isaiah 40:5 gives us the clue about where God’s highway goes with another very small easily over-looked word.  This one is slightly bigger than ‘my,’ it has three letters instead of two, but it’s a very powerful important word.  It’s the word ‘ALL.’ The text says that if we prepare the way of the Lord, “then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and ALL people shall see it together.”   That’s a pivotal and important move in this text.  This section of Isaiah expands our understanding of who God’s people are in a most dramatic fashion.

Scholars believe that the last half of the book of Isaiah was written at a later date and by a different anonymous author than the first 39 chapters.  The historical context and the tone of the message shift dramatically at the beginning of chapter 40 from one of judgment and dire prediction of impending doom leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, to words of hope and restoration in chapters 40-55 as the period of exile and banishment are coming to an end.  And part of that shift of viewpoint includes the realization that when God says MY people, the circle of God’s concern and love is universal and inclusive, not parochial and exclusive.  The realization has dawned that if God is the creator of the entire universe, then God is also the Lord and lover of all creation and cannot be limited to one tribe or segment of the human family.

In chapter 49 Isaiah says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). God’s kingdom and God’s people know no geographic or political or ideological boundaries.  ALL means all, as in “All people shall see the glory of God together”  (40:5).

Human understanding about the nature of God is an evolving process.  While some early Hebrews understood God as vengeful and to be feared, Jesus came to show us the tender, loving, merciful nature of God; and both images of God are evident in this text from Isaiah.  “The Lord comes with might,” it says in verse 10, and then in the next verse goes on to say, “he will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Those are words of comfort.  They give us hope because we see clearly the loving, merciful nature of our God who never forgets that we are God’s people – loved, forgiven, and redeemed, if we choose to return to him like the prodigal children we all are from time to time.  God calls us to partnership, to prepare the way of the Lord, and we begin “Where meek souls will receive him, still the Christ child enters in.”

But our partnership with God means we don’t have to and cannot prepare the way for God alone.  We are all mortal – we are like grass that withers and fades – but “the word of our God will stand forever.” (40:8)   Our broken world more than ever needs God’s challenging, expansive and inclusive word of hope.  As Einstein said, “We can’t solve our problems with the same kind of thinking that created them in the first place.”  We need God’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, of a peaceable kingdom.  That word is in God’s word, and it’s a word of Hope.  Advent and Christmas come in the darkest, coldest time of the year – and that’s no accident.  At the times when we most need words of comfort and hope, God knows our needs.  God hears our cries, and sends messengers in most unusual and unexpected forms to say, “Comfort, my people,” “let my people go” — set them free from doubt and fear and hopelessness.
Moses was an exile – on the lam because he had killed an Egyptian.  He was not articulate or powerful or influential –and yet God chose him and empowered him to be God’s messenger of hope.

In the return of the Exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem – God again chose a most unexpected servant to set God’s people free.  King Cyrus of Persia had no idea he was acting as God’s messenger.  He was just out to expand his own power and kingdom by knocking Babylon off as king of the hill.  But God chose this pagan ruler as the agent of liberation for God’s people.  Persia, if you are a fan of God’s irony and surprise, was where modern day Iran now sits.  God continuously sends words and acts of hope in most unexpected shapes and forms and places

And by the way, that’s exactly what God has in store for anyone who’s ready in about 21 days in a little one-horse town called Bethlehem.

Hope doesn’t always come in the way we expect.  So be ready – and prepare your hearts for the coming of the Lord.

From Doubt to Hope, Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

[Note: This is an Advent sermon preached at Jerome UMC, Plain City/Dublin, Ohio on November 27.  It is the companion piece to the drama posted earlier in the week.]

Prayer:  O God, being alone with our doubts is not an easy place to be for most of us – but it’s a necessary place from time to time for reflection, prayer and time with you.  Zechariah doubted your promise and needed some time out to be still and know you are God.  Zechariah’s story challenges us as we begin this hectic holiday season, and we pray for the wisdom to find adequate time especially now to pray and reflect on the reason for the season.  Amen.

How would you rate your level of doubt on a scale of 1-10?  My doubt score changes from day to day, sometimes hour to hour.  I’ve learned that some doubt is better than others; a healthy bit of skepticism can keep me from being naively gullible to a sales pitch or one of those Chicken Little alerts we all get from time to time in our email inbox.  The ones that assure us the sky is falling and our computers are going to crash if we don’t send all of our passwords and personal information to someone in Bangladesh immediately and forward this dire warning to everyone in our address book.  I’m most thankful for snopes.com as a resource for checking those things out before I perpetuate them.

Doubt is like yeast.  It only takes a smidgen of it to influence our decisions.  The doctors say, “we’re 90% sure this is nothing to worry about,” and that’s good.  90% is an A-, right?  But it’s that darn 10% that convinces us we need CAT Scans and PET scans – and I don’t’ even have a cat or a pet!  My dear wife, Diana, went sky diving a few years ago, and the instructor assured us it was 95% foolproof.  She went up and had a once in a lifetime experience, but the 5% doubt kept me on the ground watching.

There are lots of good reasons to have doubts today – political paralysis, congressional chaos, economic uncertainty here and abroad, virtual and real time bullies, violence masquerading as entertainment, fears about changes in health care.  You know the list all too well.  Part of the reason doubt is epidemic is TMI – too much information—and 90% of it is bad news.  The 24-7 news cycle makes it very hard to escape from it.  Following the stock market creates more whip lash than riding some monster roller coaster at Cedar Point.  When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated it took weeks for the news of his death to reach the western parts of our country.  Compare that with how quickly we know about tragedies today.
Most of us watched the 2nd plane crash into the world trade center in real time, live as it happened.  God’s still small voice is hard to hear amid the information overload.  There’s an easy solution to some of the TMI – I pads and I phones all have a great little app called an OFF Switch.  And the good news of the Gospel is that we also have an OFF switch for I DOUBT.

One of the biggies in the doubt department is our fear and uncertainty about eternal life.  We profess a belief in eternal life that is light years better than anything we have here, but we are very reluctant to reap that reward.  We will seek out any possible medical treatment to postpone our passage to paradise.  We sometimes even resort to eating wisely – well, not this weekend – or exercising.  I’ve heard it said that exercise doesn’t make you live longer – it just seems like it.  I recently saw an email about the advantages of walking that said walking every day will extend your life expectancy – so you can spend 7 more months and $30k more in a nursing home before you die.  My favorite – “My grandpa starting walking 3 miles every day when he was 55 years old, and we have no idea where he is now.”

Seriously – why are we so unwilling to depart this life?  Isn’t a big part of it that 10% of doubt and uncertainty about what the future holds?  Eternity is a long time, and we want to get it right.  Frederick Beuchner says “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.”  We can’t have faith without some doubt because faith and hope are about things we can’t see or touch or feel.  You don’t hope for something you already have – nobody puts something they already have on their list for Santa.

Hope implies a degree of ambiguity, and the strength of our hope depends on what evidence we have to lessen our uncertainty.  Evidence is funny stuff.  Two people can look at exactly the same object and see it differently depending on their perspective.  The glass half full or half empty is the classic example, and what we see when we look at that glass depends on the lens through which we view it.  Do we look through the lens of faith and hope or put on glasses of doubt and cynicism. What is your default position?

A communication professor of mine in grad school called this process attention switching, meaning that how we choose to think and talk about life and situations makes all the difference in how we feel about them.  My favorite example from Dr. Brown was the difference between asking someone at a back yard barbeque, “Would you like a pork chop?” or instead asking, “Would you like a piece of dead pig?”   Same reality, very different response.

Do we look at life through a lens of doubt or hope?  Hope implies the need to wait, and that’s hard for us 21st century folks for whom instant gratification is way too slow.  Next time you are on an airplane – watch how many people grab for their cell phones the second the wheels touch the tarmac.  We can’t wait to know what’s happened or if someone has called us or texted us in the two hours we’ve been off line.  We don’t like to wait – Black Friday is now Black Turkey day or earlier.  We can’t wait till the football season is over to hire the next coach – we want our Messiah and we want him now – not four weeks from now.

Guess how long it was between the time Isaiah wrote his prophesies about the Messiah –How “the government will be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  We could use that kind of leadership in Washington or Greece or Rome – most anywhere today, right?  But do you know how long it was between Isaiah’s time and Jesus’ birth – six or seven hundred years!  And then Jesus wasn’t what the Jews wanted for Christmas; so they missed him and are still waiting for the Messiah.    We have GPS’s that track my Fed Ex packages, and Santa’s travels on Christmas Eve.  Why can’t we come up with a Messiah tracker and take doubt out of the whole process?  Just think how much easier if would be to time our last minute conversions if we knew when Jesus was coming back!

The bottom line question is – what evidence do we have for being Hopeful people?  The way to look for that evidence is to ask what God has done for us in the past.  Notice I did not say what God has done for us lately.  That’s the wrong question.  God’s time table is different than ours.

The Bible is our record of God’s steadfast love and redeeming actions.  Read your Bible this Advent season to remember how God over and over again saves people from their doubts and sinful behaviors.  None of the leading characters in the biblical story are perfect.   There’s more sibling rivalry and adultery and deceit in the Bible than a modern day soap opera.  The sub-title for the Bible could well be “All of God’s Children.”  But God’s love and redemption trump human doubt and dubious deeds every time.  God’s grace is stronger than Moses murdering an Egyptian and Peter’s denial of Jesus.  It’s even stronger than a Roman execution and the tomb that couldn’t contain our risen Lord.  So that love is certainly stronger than my doubt and yours.  When in doubt, pray on those things.  If we focus our attention on the promises God has kept and the blessings we have received instead of on the disappointments and doubts – we have a much better chance of having an attitude of gratitude.  We enjoy celebrating Thanksgiving, except for some of those annoying relatives; but making thanksgiving a way of life year round is what hopeful people do.

Now, let’s look at Zechariah’s story – thought we’d never get back there didn’t you?  Luke tells us Zechariah was a priest, a godly, righteous man.  Being that kind of religious person, we can assume Zechariah knew his Bible.  He knew the stories of his people and how God had delivered them from Egypt and from the Exile in Babylon.  He knew the story of God’s salvation history, and he most certainly would have known the foundational story of how the nation of Israel began with the birth of Isaac, Abraham and Sarah’s son.  That story in Genesis is so similar to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s situation that I can’t believe Zechariah could have possibly missed the connection.  Abram and Sarai were old geezers too – barren, giving up hope that God’s promise that they would be the parents of a great nation could ever happen.  They doubted too – they laughed at God’s messenger when they were told Sarai would conceive in her 90’s.  But they weren’t laughing nine months later, and after that Abraham believed God’s promises.  Genesis and Romans both tell us that Abraham’s belief was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”  (Gen. 15:6, Romans 4:9)  That’s very important because it is the basis for our Protestant belief in salvation, not through doing enough good works, but through faith and trust in God’s grace.

So, given all that obvious evidence, why would Zechariah fail to believe it was possible for him and Elizabeth to have a son?  In a word, Doubt.  We all have it.  Martin Luther is famous for saying, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”  God by nature is mysterious and beyond our human ability to figure things out logically.  The problem Zechariah has and that Abraham had originally, and that some people have with the virgin birth, is that we think rationally and scientifically.  We know AARP card carriers don’t have babies – thank God for that!

But this isn’t a biology test –it’s a theology test.  And that’s what moves us from doubt to hope, from mere intellectual belief in God to 100% trust in God’s promises.  Belief is something I do in my head.  For example, I understand the physics of why parachutes work; I believe it.  But it takes real trust and faith for me to strap one of those on my back and jump out of an airplane.

It also takes a Leap of faith to trust that God will provide for us now and forever – that we can bet our lives on god’s promises.

Advent is a season of Hope because we wait for Christmas and the birth of Christ.  We remember again what our Awesome God has done and that he is a promise keeping God who gives himself 100% to become one of us – an even more outrageous miracle than Zechariah’s becoming a daddy in is golden years.

The good news is that just as Abraham and Zechariah doubted God at first, our doubts can also be transformed into hope and trust if we take time to ponder the mystery of this Christmas season.  God will give us time to do that, just as he gave Zechariah quiet time to consider his choice between doubt and hope.

To be fair, we know Zechariah’s story began in doubt – but it didn’t end there.   I’d like for Zechariah to come tell us the rest of his story.  Come on down Zechariah, and I’ll interpret for you.

Zechariah:    [excited and animated]  No need to interpret.  It was a real miracle!  Elizabeth did indeed conceive, just as the angel said.  And when her time came she gave birth to a beautiful son.  Everyone expected us to name him after me, but God had told us both to name him “John,” even though no one in our family ever had that name.  I guess God knew “Zechariah the Baptist” didn’t roll of the tongue as well as “John the Baptist!”

Interviewer:    So, when did you get your voice back?

Zechariah:    As soon as I showed my belief in God’s plan.  I wrote, “His Name is John,” and immediately my voice returned, and I haven’t stopped witnessing since.  I tell everyone who will listen what great things God had planned for our son.  God has promised us that John will live in the wilderness and become strong so he will ready when the time comes to go before the Messiah to prepare his ways – the ways of repentance and forgiveness and salvation!

Interviewer:    Thank you, Zechariah, for sharing your amazing journey from doubt to Hope.

Zechariah:    Thanks be to God!