I’m interested in an authentic faith. Something that deals with a real God, in real life, with real people. Anything less is not even worth imagining, and my friend Giana just posted an article that nails it. Go read it!
Something happened at the bar this week, and I can’t get it out of my head. I was sitting next to the fire, minding my own business. And somebody had a birthday, so somebody else decided, we gotta find out how old everybody is, that’s a fun game. Suddenly guy number 1 shouts across the entire bar, “Hey, Pastor Rob, how old are you?”
You know what happens next. I’ve told you before. As soon as people find out I’m a pastor, people start explaining why they don’t go to church. Yeah, yeah. Very funny… for you. This is my life! Just by existing I make people feel guilty.
So, this guy number two starts explaining why he doesn’t need to go to church because he can pray in his home or out in a field or whatever, and guy number three says, “You could drink at home too, but you came here.” Brothers and sisters, that’s the best theology I heard all week.
So everyone goes back to what they were doing. But this one guy, the one who two seconds ago was so busy explaining why he doesn’t need church. He looks me in the eye when no one else is listening, and he says, “I’m lost. I am. I’m lost.”
I want you to hear that for a second. Let that sink in. He feels lost, but he doesn’t want to go to church. He doesn’t trust us. He doesn’t want to feel judged. He doesn’t want to follow all these rules and have this rigid, perfect, boring life. But he doesn’t want to drink alone, but he doesn’t want to go to church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had this to say about church:
“It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. This pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!”
“But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone… God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates sin.”
Now do you understand why these prayer triads we’re doing for Lent are so important? It’s easy to think someone has their life together when the whole time you’re around them they have their mouth shut. I spend a whole week working on what I’m going to say so I don’t sound stupid or arrogant or both at the same time, and everyone else looks at the back of each others’ heads. You don’t have to say anything. You wear your nice clothes, you don’t say anything, and it’s really easy to get people to believe you’ve got your life together.
Sure we go downstairs for coffee, but who can’t put on a pleasant face for long enough to have some free coffee and finger food? If this is the only time we see of each other, how easy would it be to reach the completely logical, and completely false conclusion that we’re all nice, happy people living nice, happy lives?
Brothers and sisters, I’ve only known you for three years, so I don’t know a tenth of what’s actually going on, but even I know that’s not true. This is not a hotel for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners. And when we get together weekly, and talk with each other honestly, and pray for each other daily, we begin to see each other truthfully, authentically We see each other as whole human beings, broken and awesome and ridiculously, relentlessly loved.
That’s what people are looking for, but they don’t trust us enough to find it in a church. Thankfully, the Bible is a practical book, and today Jesus gives us a genius method for dealing with people who would rather smack people with a Bible than actually read it. You’re picturing someone in your head right now. Stop that.
Jesus goes off into the desert, is led by the Spirit into the desert, and he hasn’t eaten anything for forty days. He’s being tempted this whole time, and at the end of 40 days, he’s hungry. Then the real temptation begins. That is a whole sermon right there, but we don’t have time, so you’ll have to come back next year.
Anyway, Jesus is hungry, and the Devil says…
Actually wait. Some of you in your head right now are having an argument with me, whether the Devil is actually a real fallen angel, or if he’s the personification of evil, or if all of this is just a metaphor. I don’t care! For the sake of the story, it doesn’t matter, because the moral of the story is the same either way. So stop arguing and just listen to the story.
The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Not since, not because. If. As in, “Prove it. Show me.” Jesus quotes scripture, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
So the devil tries again. He shows him all the kingdoms of the world. “All of this has been given to me, and I can give it to you, if you worship me.” There’s that if again. Only now it’s not casting doubt, it’s laying conditions. “Barter with me. Let’s make a deal. Let’s be friends.” Jesus quotes scripture again, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
Last time. “If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here. For it is written:” Did you catch that? Every time Satan says, “Do this, do that,” and Jesus answers, “It is written.” But now Satan says, “It is written.” Remember this the next time someone quotes scripture at you like a club. Anyone can quote scripture. Satan quotes scripture! Just because you can find a text to support it doesn’t mean it’s true, or right, or good.
Pick anything. Slavery? Got a text for that. Misogyny? Got a text for that. Beating your kids when they don’t do what you say? I got a great one for that! How do you answer people who use the Bible to support horrific things?
Well, what did Jesus do? Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Did you catch it? It’s subtle. Test one. Jesus says, “It is written.” Test two. Jesus says, “It is written.” Test three, the devil says, “It is written.” But Jesus answers, “It is said.” He’s not quoting scripture any more. He’s not reading a text. He’s listening to the voices of thousands of years of believers and seekers and teachers of the word. He’s not quoting the words of a specific scripture, he’s quoting the idea behind it. And then what does he do? He shuts his mouth. The spirit of the law will always defeat the letter of the law and it does not need help!
A couple other things to notice. The devil quotes the Psalms, the Hebrew hymnal. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy. On a scroll, the lines he quotes the second and third time are literally inches away from the Shemah, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This is the beating heart of Judaism.
Now translate that into modern Christian terms. If someone is pounding you with scripture, and they’re quoting Paul, while you’re quoting Jesus? Jesus wins. Somewhere right now, one of my theology professors just felt a dark disturbance in the force, because that’s bad theology, but it is a solid rule of thumb, and that’s why I’m a pastor and not a professor.
Last thing. Jesus quotes the obvious intent of the law, while the devil argues from interpretation. “According to this Psalm, God won’t even let his holy one stub his little toe. So how much more would he protect you if you jumped off this cliff?” Again this is just a rule of thumb, because sometimes truth takes nuance. Sometimes, the obvious answer is not the correct answer. Sometimes the reading only looks simple because we’re coming at it with 21st century baggage, and we need to read it in context. But even so, it’s still a good rule of thumb. If you’re talking straight and simple, and they’re doing gymnastics, call it a win and shut your mouth. Don’t be smug about it, and don’t feel guilty. It’s not your job to convince anyone. Your job is to speak truth. Changing hearts is the work of the Spirit. Our job is to speak truth, even when it costs us. We control our mouths. Only they control their mind.
Now, with all that in mind, hear the words of Psalm 91 one more time, and see if it sounds different in your ears. “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield…”
Is that Psalm about triumph, or about hope? Is it about certainty, or faith? Was it written by someone who had it all together, or someone with a long way to go? Yes! All through Lent, we’re going to examine these Psalms, because they are everything that guy down at the bar is looking for. They are authentic emotion. They are real life. They are hope and faith and love, when we feel lost. Because we all feel lost. Welcome to Lent.
How many Christians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Church Ladies: Change!? My grandmother donated that light bulb!
Unitarian Universalists: We honor all light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, compact fluorescent three-way, dim-able, LED, and tinted; all of which are equally valid paths to illumination.
Charismatics: One. Hands already in the air
Roman Catholics: None. Light another candle.
Amish: Light bulbs?
My favorite answer of all: One. But it’s kind of like three
Is the world getting darker or brighter? I asked this question a few weeks ago, and the church was divided. Some saw light, others shadows. Whenever I hear the story of the transfiguration, I try and picture it in my mind. I can see the shadows pointing in the wrong direction, and the contrast makes them black.
If you grew up in church, you’ve heard this story before. We tell it every year, how Jesus took his students up the mountain and their whole perspective changed. At first, they thought he was a good teacher. Then, they found out he was the best teacher. He walked the dirty roads with them. He explained the deep things of God stories they could understand. He treated everyone (everyone!) like a human being. And now this happens. And they have no idea what to do. It says it right there in the text. Peter starts suggesting tents, and Luke says, “He didn’t know what he was saying.” When the author of your biography starts adding face-palms in parentheses, you know you said something dumb. But it’s easy to understand why.
One second, Jesus talking to the people that most people hate. The next he’s having a conversation with Moses and Elijah, superheroes of the faith, dead for generations! One second, he’s telling people to keep his work a secret, the next he’s shining like a star on a mountaintop. One second he’s calling himself the Son of Man, the next a voice from the sky is calling him the Son of God. What does this mean?
The celtic saints of old believed the world is full of thin places, moments when what is, and what will be, almost touch. They held boundaries as holy places. Sunrise and sunset. Thresh-holds and doorways. The tideline on the sand. And of course the thinnest of thin places. Jesus. The core claim of Christianity, consistent for 2000 years, is nothing more or less than this: when you look at Jesus, you see God as God truly is.
That’s nice, Preacher, but what does that mean? It means there’s no difference between the Son of Man walking in the dirt and the Son of God shining on the mountain. They are the exact same thing seen from a different perspective. Every other moment in the gospels shows things from our perspective, from the ground up, but this one moment gives us God’s perspective. And what do we see? The shadows all point the wrong way. The light isn’t shining down from above, it’s standing right here next to us in the dirt, and it’s shining into the night.
When he treats people like human beings. When he talks with women, and cripples, and children, and sinners, and foreigners, and traitors, and fishermen, and princes, and he treats them all like children of God. When he confronts the corrupt, and heals the hurting, and loves the unlovely. When he finds out first-hand what it means to be a hero in a corrupt world. When he pays the price to side with the lost and the least. This is not a show. This is not PR. This is God walking, and wherever he walks, shadows flee.
We want to honor Jesus, and rightly so. So we make beautiful buildings in his name, sing beautiful songs in his name, write moderately interesting sermons in his name. But the Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve. And if we really want to honor him, we need to imitate him. We need to shine in dark places.
Paul says, we all “with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Does that sound like a nice, unobtrusive way to live? No! We were made to shine. And when we play small, we do no favors to a world in pain, we bring no honor to the God who made us, and we die with half our lives un-lived. Is that what Jesus founded? A church full of mice? That’s not what I see. I see diamonds. Rough diamonds, sure. A little cloudy, maybe. A little dirty. But diamonds all the same, and this is just the place to rub off those rough edges.
Teddy Roosevelt said, “On Sunday go to church. Yes – I know all the excuses. I know that one can worship the Creator and dedicate oneself to good living in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in one’s own house, just as well as in church. But I also know that as a matter of cold fact the average man does not thus worship or thus dedicate himself. If he stays away from church he does not spend his time in good works or in lofty meditation. He looks over the colored supplement of the newspaper…”
So you drag yourself out of bed and you go to church, and what do you find? The same thing those disciples found on the top of that hill. Light and shadows. Forgiveness and gossip. Gentleness and rudeness. Peace and violence. Does the presence of shadows mean the light doesn’t exist? Just the opposite! The brighter the light, the clearer the shadow. The important thing isn’t that shadows exist, it’s which way they point.
There are plenty of evils pointing dark fingers back at the church. The same church that opposed slavery also helped support it. The same church that helped women fight for equality also holds them down. The same church that gave us Martin Luther King Jr. and Oscar Romero also gave us conquistadors and inquisitors. Shadows all over the place.
But not pointing toward Jesus. Even Thomas Jefferson, who took the time to cut out all the miracles out of his Bible, took that time specifically because he wouldn’t give up Jesus too. There is something about this man, something revealed for a moment on that mountaintop, that keeps us coming back. He casts light the way others cast shadows.
In his light, every speck and imperfection is obvious, and yet none of it matters because he loves you anyway. This is God as we can understand God. When you look into those eyes, what do you see, wrath? No. Try: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You do not have to be afraid, you do not have to understand it all, and you do not have to get it right before you begin.
So the world is getting brighter, but only as far as we reflect him. The world can’t see him any more, but it can still see us. Which means, our choices matter. We do not have the privilege of a quiet, personal religion, because we do not follow a quiet, personal God. We follow a superstar who still shines at us from a mountaintop two thousand years in the past.
Does that mean everything’s going to be great? No. The brighter he shines in this world, the more clearly the shadows stand out. Don’t let them overwhelm you, and don’t look away. Refusing to see a thing won’t fix it. Look at the shadows in this world, and notice before whom they run. When you get scared, turn your face to the Son, and all the shadows will fall behind you.
What’s your New Year’s resolution?
For the first time since I was a kid, I went to see Charles Dickens’ immortal holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, ably performed by the Saugatuck Village Players, featuring our very own Jane Van Dis. Needless to say, I was stunned by what I found. I believe it is time for all true believers to stand united and boycott this play.
Scrooge asks his nephew what good Christmas has done him, and Fred replies, “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
That’s the entire play in a nutshell, the whole thing foreshadowed in a monologue, and you know whose name is never mentioned? Exactly! Scrooge learns many things. He learns to open his shut-up heart. He learns to be kind and charitable. He learns to see men and women as fellow human beings… because they all stand equal before God? No. Because they all stand equal before death.
We’re all going to die, so what good is hoarding all this money? In the end, you’re going to die and Jane Van Dis is coming for your stuff, so you might as well use it now. Do some good. And if you don’t give your workers a raise, Tiny Tim is going to die. It’s a liberal propaganda piece! Why are we not boycotting this godless communist nonsense?
Because it’s true! We are going to die. Your fellow human beings are sentient and capable of suffering. If the pretend-birthday of Jesus forces us to stop once a year and notice… If the noticing makes us want to actually change the way we treat people, then call me crazy, but I think Jesus would be OK with that.
And if that’s where you need to stop, fine. I will happily work side by side with anyone who wants to increase the amount of living, and decrease the amount of suffering in the world today. But I can’t stop there. I can’t just watch the Christmas Carol and call it good enough. Because there’s something in this story that means so much more. So let’s hear it again.
Once upon a time, an angel appeared to Mary and said, “Hail, you who are highly favored. You will have a child, who will be called the Son of the most-high God.” Now, Mary was a 36 year-old graduate of Johns Hopkins, so after performing sufficient tests to verify that she wasn’t hallucinating, she turned to her husband Joseph and asked him what he thought.
Joseph graduated summa cum laude from Columbia’s law department, so naturally he had a few questions of his own. But in the end, he agreed to make a run down to Walgreens for an EPT, and sure enough, they were having a baby!
When they published the sonogram online, the world went ballistic. And when the time came, thousands gathered outside the Mayo clinic to keep vigil. The reception line to greet the tiny messiah was over a mile long, and they finally had to resort to a lottery, there were so many dignitaries, celebrities, and religious authorities all wanting to be the first to welcome the newborn king.
If we had written it, that’s how it would have gone. But the message of Christmas is that in the endless fight between the haves and the have-nots, God sides with the poor. God threw a birthday party for his Son, and the only people who got the invite were some stinking shepherds and some foreigners, who weren’t even Jews. Nowadays, we wouldn’t even let them be church members. But they got the invite. God sides with the outcast. God didn’t just become one of us. God became poor.
Which is great because they were the only ones prepared to welcome him. The king was too busy hatching plots. The politicians were getting re-elected. The preachers were crafting compelling worship services. Ok, moderately compelling worship services.
Remember this the next time you feel unworthy, or powerless, or poor. It doesn’t matter if all you have is the clothes on your back. That’s all Mary had. The uneducated teen-age mother, ripped strips from her own clothes to wrap the baby. Every time you give even though it hurts, that’s Christmas.
It doesn’t matter if all you have is the skill in your hands and forgiving heart. That’s all Joseph had. He took a son he didn’t father, a son the neighbors would all label as a word I can’t use tonight because there are children present. He took that child, and raised him as his own. Every time you forgive even though it’s hard, that’s Christmas.
It doesn’t matter if all you have is some stink and a smile. That’s all the shepherds had. They brought their sheep, their smell, and a song they could not contain. Every time you let another human being see the joy inside your heart, that’s Christmas
And if you are one of those lucky few blessed with the intelligence, and the education, and the good fortune to be rich, which is pretty much all of us. Hello Americans. You don’t need to be rich-er before you make the world a better place. The wise men were the only ones to bring presents, because they were the only ones who could afford them. Every time you use the immeasurable blessings you’ve been given to make one tiny corner of this world more alive and less broken, that’s a gift worthy of Christmas.
There comes a point in every conspiracy when it ceases to be a secret. We don’t usually notice, because we don’t think of them as conspiracies. We just say, “Oh look. That’s the way things are.” But before there was an American Revolution, it was a conspiracy. Before there was the Underground Railroad, it was a conspiracy. Before anyone invented the word Christmas, there were people meeting in secret, looking for a way to change the world. Real conspiracies are never meant to stay secret, and they never do. One way or another, word gets out.
I really wish we could just skip to this part, skip Advent and do Christmas. If love is the point, then let’s just skip all the planning and the preaching and just be good to each other. Is that so hard?
Uh… Yeah. Surprisingly, it is. If Christmas is real, then it is not enough to sit in a church service, sing some songs and go home. It is not enough to trade gifts and cards. It is definitely not enough to stand on the outside of our consumer culture and shout into the middle that Jesus is the reason for the season.
Because the truth of Christmas is simply this: God loves the poor.
Let me prove it. Of all the times and all the places God could have chosen, why should Christmas happen in first century Israel? In this election there was only one vote, and God chose the working poor.
Joseph was a carpenter, but it wasn’t enough. We know because when it came time to present their offering at the temple, they only gave two doves. The law said you should give a lamb and a dove, but if you’re too poor for a lamb, you could give two doves.
She gave birth in a manger! Sure, it looks all cute when it’s doll sized and made out of porcelain, but how many ladies in this room have ever carried a baby? And how many of you would volunteer to give birth in a drafty, dark, stinking manger? What? No volunteers? She should have had a midwife! She should have had family. She should have had a bed that wasn’t previously used by a farm animal! They were poor.
Of all the people and all the times, God picks them. You can hear it in the refrain of the Old Testament, that we should care for the widow, and orphan, and the stranger. You can hear it in the Proverbs. “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker”. You can hear it in the words of Jesus himself. “As you did it for the least of these, you did for me.”
God loves the poor. Some have even said that Jesus’ first act of communication was a cry of solidarity, a wordless scream that said, “I’m scared. I’m cold. I’m hungry. Feed me. Help me. Hold me.”
That’s the message of Christmas. God doesn’t just love the poor. In the endless struggle between the haves and the have nots, God votes for the poor, God sides with the poor, God becomes poor.
We cannot call ourselves Christians and ignore this truth. Many times, you’ve heard me say, “This is Rob’s translation. This is my interpretation. I have the freedom of the pulpit. You have to freedom of the pew.”
Not today. This not optional. This is not interpretation. This is fundamental. To be a follower of Jesus is by definition to love the poor. To fail at loving them is to fail at loving him, because he sides with them. He’s one of them. He is them.
Are you with me? Because if you don’t have this, there’s no point in all the rest. As a church, as the gathered body of Christ, are we agreed in this? The message of Christmas is God loves the poor.
If that’s the starting place, how do we apply it? Let me give you three ways, and then we’ll be done.
First, and most obviously, love the poor must mean caring for and defending the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. Or to translate it for Saugatuck: the single mom, the hungry child, and the migrant worker. Yes, that is Rob’s translation, but I think it’s a fair one. We’ve made a good start here, but there’s more to do, and this is only the most obvious form of love.
Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.”
To summarize G.K. Chesterton, love means forgiving the unforgivable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing when it is hard to believe or it is no virtue at all. Modern translation? You gotta love the jerks.
And lastly, if you are truly going to love everyone, you have to love yourself. Because we are all poor in our own way. By global standards, we’re rich, but by God’s standard we’re still babies screaming into the night, “I’m scared. I’m cold. I’m hungry. Feed me. Help me. Hold me.” God chose us. Emmanuel, God with us. God loves the poor, and if we have the eyes to see it and the ears to hear it, that means God loves us.
If God loves the poor, then we have to love everybody! If all you want to do is keep having meetings, go start a club. You can have a secret handshake, and keep people out, and have no end of fun. Clubs are awesome! But if you want more than that, if you actually want to change something, then take this conspiracy public. Love everybody: even the poor, even the jerks, even yourself.
Primary Text: Luke 3:7-14
Welcome to week three of our Advent Conspiracy. In week 1, the challenge was to worship fully by listening for God’s still, small voice. In week, 2 the challenge was to overthrow the standing order of a consumer Christmas by spending less. Now we come to week three, where all that discipline begins to pay off.
You can only keep quiet so long before you want to speak. You can only cut back so long before you have to spend. Which is the point. Don’t just spend less. Give more. Oh look, a preacher asking for money, what a surprise. Don’t worry. This is not a fundraising speech. We’re talking about a biblical principle that will bring more money and more energy into your life, not less.
But before we get there, we have to clear up a misinterpretation. Despite what some people seem to think, Jesus did not come here to establish an ascetic commune, where no one has anything, especially not any fun. Giving is not rule to be obeyed. It’s a principle built into the world, and you will see everywhere, once you learn how to look.
Anybody here ever shopped at Walmart? Right. And you go there because you’re looking for low… prices. It’s certainly not for the customer service. 40 checkout counters and 4 checkers. 2 on this end. 2 on the other with a ten minute line on each, and 32 empty lanes in between.
Last week, it took me 35 minutes to send a MoneyGram because the only person trained to do it went on lunch break just as I arrived. I asked for a manager, she says, “That was the manager.”
Have you noticed they don’t even have ceilings! Can you imagine the meeting to discuss that one? “We need to cut costs. Who has a good idea?” “Umm. How often do shoppers actually look up?” Over the life of the company, how much money have they saved from that one choice? I know it sounds like I’m making fun of them. Ok, I am making fun of them, but all those choices that annoy me, those are exactly the choices that make Walmart one of the most successful companies in the world! Walmart carefully and intentionally loses at customer service in order to win on price.
Anybody here ever shop in the boutiques of Saugatuck or Douglas? Find a lot of low prices? Nope. You know that going in, but in return for that higher price, you get to use words like: unique and quirky, fair-trade, beautiful craftsmanship, and personal attention. Boutiques carefully and intentionally lose at price in order to win at customer service. It’s the same principle as Walmart only in reverse. Spend less to give more.
How does that apply to the Christian life? We carefully and intentionally lose at the game everyone else seems to be playing. Keeping up with the Jones? I lose. Always being right? I lose. Controlling other people? I lose. Why? So I can take all the money and time and energy I was dumping into that endless stupid game and spend it on something better.
Our reading from Luke has a great example of this. John the Baptist is out preaching in the desert, and people start coming out to listen to him. And John, loving and kind pastor that he was said, “You sons of snakes! Who warned you? Since when do you care about God?” How’d you like to hear that on a Sunday morning?
“Our father is Abraham. Our father is Abraham. God made Adam out of dirt. If all he wanted were sons of Abraham, he could make some out of these rocks. God has no grandkids. And you people, born with every advantage, are inches away from losing it all.”
Stunned. They ask the only appropriate question. “What do we do?” And John says “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” That is not communism. Anyone who says otherwise needs to go read it again.
But that’s not even the most interesting part of the story. “Even the tax collectors came to be baptized. And then the soldiers.” Do you get the nuance there? There are people, and then there are tax collectors, and then way over there? Ugh. Soldiers. They are living in occupied territory, under the boot of Roman power. The tax collectors are the traitorous scumbags who collect money on behalf of the oppressor. They betray their people for the institutionalized privilege of skimming off the top. And soldiers? They’re the hired thugs who enforce the whole system.
Imagine the hutzpah it took, for these people to come to John and ask, “What about us? What should we do?” And John says, “You tax collectors should tie a stone around your feet and go jump in a lake. And you soldiers should quit your job in formal protest and take up knitting.”
No. He says, “Don’t collect more than you’re due. Don’t extort people. Be content with your pay. You know that game that every other soldier and every tax collector is playing? You carefully and intentionally lose.” Why? So we can all be poor and our families can starve? Is that what he said? “You who have two shirts, go give your two shirts away so you can freeze to death. And you with more than enough food. Give all your food away so your family can starve.” Is that what he said? No. You fight the temptation of greed, and the demands of your evil bosses, and the expectations of all the people who hate you, and you do a good job. Be a fair tax collector. But a good soldier.
To their ears it sounded like a contradiction in terms, but we know it’s not. They couldn’t see it yet, because they’d never seen it before, and their imaginations were too small. But God’s dream is bigger than our brains, and just because we can’t imagine it, doesn’t make it so. There will come a day when we won’t need soldiers, or tax collectors, or police. There will come a day when we don’t need preachers! Hey! No cheering.
Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, and one faithful soldier, one honest tax-collector might be the very first step toward it. Even if you never know the difference your contribution makes, all those little contributions add up to a change in the system, a world made new. The king is coming, and you still have time to prepare.
Paul said, “I have learned the secret to being content in any situation…” Do you hear the power and the peace in that? To have enough time. To have enough money. To be content. Isn’t that what we all claim to be chasing while we running around all crazy and stressed? Turns out the answer was here all along.
Give more. Obviously that can mean money, but it can mean so much more than money. Giving up a grudge, forgiving an offense, letting go of the need to be right all the time. It all frees you to live. I can’t tell you exactly what that’s going to look like for you, because it’s as different as Walmart and a boutique. When we stop playing everyone else’s game, we are free at last to be ourselves.
For Walmart, it’s low prices. For a boutique, it’s great service. For you? Maybe it’s the best children’s ministry this church has ever seen. Maybe it’s a church budget that runs in the black. Maybe it’s not in the church at all. God’s kingdom is bigger than these four walls. Maybe you’ll start a change that keeps our kids safe from broken people wiht guns. I don’t know what you’ll do, but I know you can’t do it while trying to do everything else at the same time.
That’s the secret swap that everyone sees and nobody notices. It’s not about mission statements, or getting motivated, or gritting your teeth and trying harder. It’s intentionally losing at one game so you can win at another. The thing you don’t do, enables the thing you do. So, worship fully, spend less, and use all the time and energy you get from that, to give more.
Charge to the congregation: Any time we talk about giving up, or giving more, we have to walk a fine line. What about the people who are already giving? What about the people who’ve been used or abused? Should they just keep giving up and giving more? Yes! Give up feeling worthless! Give up feeling like garbage is your due. Give more trust to the promise that you are known and loved. Nothing could stop God’s love for you. Not the boundless depths of time and space. Not the hatred and stupidity of a world in rebellion. Not death itself could stop God from loving you. Give up believing anyone who says otherwise. Do that, and giving more will be as easy as breathing.
Welcome to week two of the Advent Conspiracy. I hope you haven’t told anyone. Conspiracies only work if you keep them secret. Last week, your Pastor told you to keep your mouth shut. How much more blatant do I have to be? Don’t go inviting people to church. Don’t talk about the sermon during the week. Don’t you know pastors hate that? It’s a conspiracy! Shhhhhh.
In week one, your job was to seek silence, to step outside the noise and the bustle and the lights and the crowds, and listen for that still, small voice. If you want Christmas to mean something, it starts with worshiping fully, bringing your whole self to the conversation. Because it’s remarkably hard to have a conversation when you’re running around distracted and stressed.
Which brings us to week two. Last week, we talked about the ancient roots of this festival, how it was grounded in hope. Is that what it’s about now? Is that why all the stores are decorated? To bring hope to the world? Is that what all the lights are for? To take a stand against the darkness?
Jon Stewart had a great take on this. He says, Christmas started on Dec. 25th. One day. Then we added Christmas eve. Then we ran it through Epiphany so we could have 12 days of Christmas. Then we started running sales on black Friday, to kick off the Christmas season. And this year, for the very first time, we added black Thursday. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. Christmas is such an amazing consumer holiday that it’s actually eating other holidays. See, that’s why I don’t need a team of writers. I can just steal from Jon Stewart!
Anyway, I think we can all agree, that the root of Christmas as we know it today, is consumerism. The lights and the decorations and the sales are there to draw you in. The goal of the season is to get you to spend more. So the conspiracy response is obvious, right? Spend less.
We’re all familiar with the crestfallen look on the face of a child who just opened one of those cards that says, “A donation has been made in your name.” You’ve gotten those cards before. My only advice there is make sure it’s a cause they actually care about. Otherwise it’s not even a gift really; it’s just you being obnoxious. But giving donations instead of gifts isn’t the only way to spend less.
Maybe you declare this the year of the homemade present. Maybe you agree as a family that every single present needs to cost exactly three dollars and seventeen cents. Why? Because it’s fun, and it forces you to be creative. It moves Christmas out of the guilt-ridden, gotta give them something because they gave me something headspace into something more authentic.
Spending less is not the point. It’s a tactic. Suppose you’re carrying a back pack, and it’s loaded down with all your stuff. Most of us couldn’t move. Some of us would be crushed instantly. If, starting this Christmas, you stopped putting more stuff in, would that really help? You’re still stuck with all this stuff on your back! The good news of Christmas is about lightening the load.
I met a guy this week who shrunk all his stuff down to two suitcases. His name is Henrik and he’s spent the last half a year or so traveling around the world visiting all his friends. You know how he did it? He sold all his stuff. He lives out of one suitcase and the other one, full of the sentimentals he just couldn’t sell, is at his dad’s. He’s a freelancer, works through the web, so he brings in enough money to break even. Since he’s not spending down his savings, he’ll go home in a few weeks with a nice nest egg to get back into a place of his own.
By American Consumer Christmas standards, he ought to be miserable! One suitcase! Where does he keep all his stuff? We were walking around Chicago and I kept walking into stores, really cool stores, and he kept not buying stuff! It was weird. So yes, I know it is possible to live with less stuff. I met a guy who did it, and he didn’t die! In fact, he was delightful.
But Jesus didn’t come to set us free from stuff. Jesus came to set us free. If stuff were the whole problem, we could just have nothing and we’d magically be happy. But we spent all day tromping around Chicago, and we met quite a few people with nothing, and to be honest they didn’t seem very happy. Our attachment to stuff is a symptom. We’re trying to fill a deeper need. But it doesn’t matter how much stuff you cram down a bottomless hole. It’s never going to fill.
This advent, don’t just spend less money. Spend less time on distractions. Spend less energy holding grudges. Spend less thought trying to figure out what kind of person the-kind-of-person-you-want-to-be with wants to be with.
Spend less money. Sure. Yes. Obviously! Is there any week in the year when that wouldn’t be good advice? But don’t just hoard cash. Use this as an opportunity to shock your brain into thinking about your life from a higher level. Last week our job was to seek silence. What did you learn? What has your attention? What has a hold on you and how can you let it go?
Because Christmas is coming. We hear that and we think, “Yay! Cookies and presents and songs!” But that’s not what it meant originally. Remember our reading from Malachi?
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple… But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire…”
That’s what Christmas meant. Refiner’s fire. It meant the world was about to heat up, and the pure silver would rise to the top. It is not a sweet and gentle metaphor. There is nothing funny or cute about refiner’s fire. It’s about reduction of waste, elimination of impurities, and letting go of whatever is holding you down so you can rise.
God says through Malachi, “…I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers…” That’s pretty standard stuff, right? People who defraud the simple, people who cheat on their spouse, people who tell lies in court. We can get behind that. Yeah! Get ‘em God!
But he’s not done. He will be quick to testify, “against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me…”
It was ok, God, when you were going after wizards. I mean who even knows a wizard? But now you’re talking national politics. Now you’re talking about labor, and foreigners, and medicare, and education funding. Now you’re talking about my money.
Yes. That is exactly what we’re talking about. Spend less isn’t some nice advice we tell the kids even though we know they won’t really do it. Spend less isn’t a Christmas gimmick. This is an advent conspiracy to undercut the powers and principalities of this present age. Christmas is coming, and it’s time to clean house.
We just read about the birth of John the Baptist, that was his entire message. “The king is coming! Everybody look busy.” Nah. “The king is coming. Get ready.” Let go of old burdens, forgive old debts, start a new life.
That’s the conspiracy. That’s the secret. And since I know you all to be perfectly obedient pew-sitters, who always do exactly what your pastor tells you, I’ll leave you with one final instruction. Don’t talk about this at home. Don’t mention it to your friends. And for heaven’s sake don’t invite anyone to the candlelight service. Because who knows what might happen. Something might even change. We can’t have that. This is a church, right?
Welcome to the Advent Conspiracy. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to subvert Christmas. And yes, I did say subvert. Merriam/Webster says to subvert is to overturn or overthrow from the foundation, to pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith. It’s not the sort of thing pastors usually encourage.
Far more common to hear a pastor say, “We need to retake Christmas!” Like it’s a hill on a battlefield. In my opinion, anyone who says such things simply hasn’t done their homework. We cannot retake, reclaim, recover, or repossess Christmas, because all of those RE’s imply that upon a time Christmas belonged to us.
The real story is lost to us, but my guess is it went something like this. Once upon a time, the only thing that shone in the night were the moon and the stars. Winter wasn’t a wonderland, it was a marathon. Which would last longer? The snow? Or your food supplies?
In those days, when the world got colder and the nights got longer, it would be easy to give up hope. People without hope do dangerous things, even if there is enough food. So, one of their wise ones taught them to watch the sun.
If you stake a pole in the ground and watch where the mid-day shadow falls, you can make a little mark in the dirt. Each day, that little mark will shift, each day’s mark moving farther and farther north. As the days get shorter, the lines get closer together, until day after day, it seems as if the sun is standing still. That’s why they call it solstice. Sol, meaning sun. And stice meaning stands.
When the people saw the sun stand still they would know that winter’s back was broken, and that spring would come again. Naturally, they would throw a party. One ancient tradition says they would cut down the largest evergreen they could find, throw the giant log into the fire, and as long as that log burned, that’s how long the party lasted. Another says they would sacrifice a boar, make vows, and share it in a feast. The truth is probably as diverse as the people that celebrated, but all those traditions added up defiance of darkness.
When the Christians came, they saw a parallel between the defiant hopefulness of solstice, and the defiant hopefulness of the narrative of Jesus’ birth. They Christianized a pagan festival. Well, they tried. We wish you a merry Christmas. So bring us some figgy pudding. Imagine you’re trying to honor the birth of Christ, and crew of drunken hooligans stand your own lawn and demand food. We won’t go until we get some.
Now you understand why the Pilgrims banned Christmas. The Puritans called it, “Foolstide” 16th-century clergyman Hugh Latimer said, “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas, than in all the 12 months besides.” Christmas didn’t become an official American holiday until 1870. And from the very start, it has existed in a tension between believers who sincerely want to honor Christ, and business owners who sincerely want to make money.
Santa Clause as we know him was popularized at least in part by Coca-Cola, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was invented by Montgomery Ward. You cannot reclaim Christmas! It was never ours. Christians have been intentionally subverting someone else’s holiday for approximately 2000 years.
Remember, to subvert is to overturn or overthrow from the foundation. What was the foundation? The sun! People needed warmth on a cold day. They needed for hope in a long, dark night. So their wise ones pointed them toward the sun.
Does it really change anything? Does it start getting warmer after December 21st? No way! Just the opposite, right? You are not half-way through winter. January is going to be cold. And February is going to be worse. Solstice does not change your situation. It changes your point of view. Christianity does the exact same thing, it just points people toward a different son.
If you would join this advent conspiracy, it begins with fixing your eyes on the proper son. So your tactic this week is to worship fully. Follow the example of the Psalmist. I have to admit I’m guilty of a little selective reading this week. Did you notice we skipped the middle of the Psalm?
This is a modern rendition of Psalm 25. Written by a band called Third Day. Great band. Here’s their version. If you want to just listen along, that’s good. It’s a good song. But if you want to turn to Psalm 25 and read along, you might learn something.
So what part got left out? The whole middle. The part about pain and fear and loneliness and enemies. The Psalms can be disturbing to our modern sensibilities, so when we read them or rewrite them, we tend to skip over the hard parts, but their beauty lies in their absolute honesty. David lived a complex life and he brought every ounce of it, the joy and pain, the loss and the anger, he brought it all to the face of God. When we worship fully, we see the world from an eternal perspective.
The problem, as Isaiah discovered, is that God speaks in a whisper. He’s not in the noise of the wind. He’s not in the motion of the earthquake. He’s not in the light and heat of the flame. God speaks from the silence. So, your homework this week is to shut your mouth. My homework, our homework, is to seek silence. If you have family, try it at the dinner table. Go one whole meal without saying anything. And notice what you really wish you could say. Because I bet it’s not, “Please pass the salt.”
We don’t just truncate the Psalms, we edit ourselves. We keep the hard parts to ourselves and speak the trivialities. But when we practice seeking silence, when we intentionally shut our mouths, we discover almost accidentally what we really wanted to say.
When we do that, when we practice the presence of God, we begin it see the world from an eternal perspective. It helps us stay calm when everyone else is frantic from the noise, the commotion, and the flashing lights. It helps us stay centered when everyone else is chasing the latest beeping, bouncing, glowing gadget. And even though it’s only December, even though the days are still dark and cold, even though it might get worse before it gets better, that new perspective gives us hope. Don’t you think the world needs a little hope? Welcome to the conspiracy.