We're in this series called The Advent Conspiracy. We are one of over a thousand churches working to recover the scandal of Christmas by entering the Christmas story and asking the question, "How can we worship Jesus more?" We've been talking about some of the themes like:
- spending less so that we make room to say yes to Jesus in our lives
- giving more – giving relational gifts, because God gave us a relational gift – his own Son
- loving all – believing that with the money we save by giving relationally and resisting the empire we can, in turn, re-distribute the money we saved to the least of these in the world
Next week we're taking an offering with the money from celebrating Christmas differently. All of this money is going to go to Living Water International. They're going to use this money to help some of the 1.1 billion people live without clean drinking water in this world. But this isn't an extra thing we want to tag onto an already stressful Christmas. The idea isn't to buy all the gifts you'd normally buy and then drop a little extra in the offering as well. Instead, we want to celebrate Christmas entirely differently and enter into the story of Christ coming to this world.
There's a new movie out by Morgan Spurlock, the guy who directed and starred in Super Size Me, called What Would Jesus Buy? In the movie they did some interviews. In one of the interviews, a woman admitted to applying for all kinds of credit cards behind her husband's back. They interviewed her husband and he said, "No, we don't have any credit cards." She had all the credit cards maxed out when they arrived in the mail for Christmas. What she said was, "My kids are going to have all of these things because I never got them and because I love them that much."
There's another story of a man who went out when the Playstation 2 came out that Christmas. There was a mad rush to get them, and someone pulled out a gun and shot him. He had two Playstation 2s, bullet wounds. Someone got down to help him out. As he lay there he tried to pull the credit card out of his wallet as he said, "Go buy these for me."
We hear these stories and think that it's crazy, and it is. Something pure and universal like parental love somehow at Christmas gets reduced to loving enough to go into debt or even to take a bullet to buy our kids stuff. Rick McKinley, one of the pastors who came up with the idea of Advent Conspiracy, says, "This thing called love that you can't put a price-tag on has been reduced so that you can." (Rick McKinley).
Entering the Christmas story means that we stand back a little and ask, "Is that the story that we're invited to enter this Christmas?" Ultimately, Christmas is not about the gifts that we buy for each other. Christmas is about a relational gift.
At Christmas we celebrate that out of all the things that God could have given us, God gave us the most costly gift – something so valuable you can't put it on a price-tag. God gave us himself. As we enter this story, we have to ask ourselves, "How will it look as we follow the example of Jesus and give something more valuable than stuff? How will it look if we follow Jesus' example and give the gift of relationship this Christmas?"
We just read a passage written by the apostle Paul in which Paul explains the essence of the gift that we have been given. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18, "All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ."
Reconciling is when someone does something between enemies so that they become friends again. Jesus came as a person which is in itself a relational gift, but he also came to restore the relationship between us and God. He restored the ultimate relationship and he did so by coming himself at Christmas as a person, as one of us.
There's a movie called The Straight Story. It's about a 73-year-old man who has a broken relationship with his brother, Lyle. They haven't seen or spoken to each other in over 10 years. One day Alvin learns that Lyle has had a stroke, and he determines to visit him and make things right.
Alvin hitches a makeshift trailer to his 1966 John Deere riding lawn mower and sets out on a 500-mile trip. He camps out in fields and backyards made available by hospitable people he meets along the way. Slowly but surely, Alvin perseveres and reaches his brother.
He steers his riding mower down a dirt road and finds a run-down wooden shack. Alvin climbs off the mower, shuffles slowly toward the house, and calls out, "Lyle! Lyle!" There is no response. The look on Alvin's face shows his fear: perhaps he's too late. Maybe Lyle has died in the six weeks since he began his journey.
After a lengthy pause, a voice from inside the shack calls, "Alvin? Alvin?" Lyle appears at the front door holding onto a walker. He invites Alvin to come onto the porch, where they silently sit. Alvin nervously looks at his brother, while Lyle studies the riding mower and makeshift trailer. Eventually Lyle says, "You came all this way on that just to see me?"
Alvin's smiles with tears in his eyes and says, "Yep!"
That is like the Christmas story. We were enemies of God. There is nothing that we could do. We were dead. Then we look at the manger, which was a feeding trough for animals, and see the baby who is the Son of God and say, "You came all this way for what?"
We then look at the cross, in which that same God-man died for all, and we realize the extent of what God has done to reconcile us to himself.
This is the ultimate relational gift. Because of our sin, we were enemies of God. We could do nothing about it. All the religion in the world couldn't help. God took the initiative and sent Jesus – Immanuel, which means God With Us, so that we are no longer enemies with God.
The question I want to ask is: how do you celebrate the fact that God has given us the ultimate relational gift? There is something strange, isn't there, in celebrating God's relational gift by going into debt to buy stuff that we won't even remember in six months
World Vision did a study in the United Kingdom. The study found that Britons waste over $4.5 billion every year on unwanted Christmas presents, and almost a third of them wind up being sold online after the festive season. We're buying all this stuff that ends up on eBay. The study also showed that more than a quarter of Britons cannot remember what anyone bought them for Christmas last year.
Is there a better way to celebrate the ultimate relational gift?
Paul says so. In 2 Corinthians 5:18 and 19 he says that God has given us both the ministry and the message of reconciliation. Our job, in other words, is to be relational gift givers as well, bringing people back to God. It's like, Paul says, God is making his appeal through us: "Be reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20). Because we have received the ultimate relational gift, our whole lives become relational gifts to others. Because Jesus given us a relational gift, we have become relational gift-givers.
Our job, in other words, is to share this relational gift of Jesus Christ with everyone, to let them know that God has taken action by sending his Son to reconcile humanity to himself.
A little earlier I asked "How will it look as we follow the example of Jesus and give something more valuable than stuff? How will it look if we follow Jesus' example and give the gift of relationship this Christmas?" What would it look like if Christ-followers in the thousand churches that are part of the Advent Conspiracy said, "We may shop and give gifts this year, but we're not buying into the hype. We're not going in debt and we're not putting a price-tag on love." What if we shopped and gave relational gifts that echo and express the ultimate relational gift that God gave to us?
In your bulletin there's a list of relational gift ideas. I think it's interesting, by the way, that the theme of relational giving is summed up in two words: "Give more." Giving relationally involves spending less money, but it means giving more, not less. It means giving of yourself rather than just giving junk. The purpose isn't the gift itself. The purpose is the giving of yourself to others, especially as you love others in Jesus' name.
The ultimate purpose in all of this is to worship more. We want to enter the Christmas story and worship more by spending less, giving more by giving relationally, and loving all, including the least of these, because Jesus says that by loving the least of these we are loving and serving him.
You may be thinking of all the bad things that happen if we give relational gifts to each other in just over a week. You can picture my kids opening the gift that I've crocheted for them. But listen to this audio clip from Clark Blakeman, who describes what relational giving meant to his family last year.
Let me give you a couple of other examples of relational gifts. A granddaughter bought an $8 package of coffee to be shared with her grandmother, so the grandmother could share with her stories of her life and growing up. Another example was a father, who instead of giving his son an X-Box, gave him a baseball glove and pledged to spend more time playing catch with him. We do this because we worship a God who gave us a relational gift. God gave us His son. This is an incredible opportunity to reclaim the heart of what matters most as we learn together to give gifts of meaning instead of simple material gifts.
Clark talked about having the awkward conversations with his family at the beginning of the Advent season last year. I encourage you to do the same this week. Let's work together as families to say how can we check out of some of the craziness of Christmas so that we really enter the Christmas story this year and spend less, give more, and love all because we want to worship the one who has given us the ultimate relational gift. Let's pray.
Father, prepare our hearts for what you want to do through us. Thank you for giving us the ultimate relational gift. Thank you for sending your Son. I pray that you would make us relational gift givers who most of all offer the message of reconciliation to others, but who also give of ourselves this Christmas to celebrate the one who gave himself. In Jesus' name. Amen.