In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
This Advent we here in the South Hills Partnership have been studying the book Advent Conspiracy. And since I haven’t been in with you for the past three weeks I’m not sure what all has been said so far, so bear with me if some of what I say today is familiar territory. I promise to get to the new stuff ASAP!
I have enjoying trying out some of the ideas in Advent Conspiracy. The book has some really good suggestions for making Christmas more… Christian, if you will. I have been delighted with the results, with the things I tried out.
For those of you who are not reading the book, and even for those who are, I wanted to share some background information about the book that I’ve shared with the other churches.
Advent Conspiracy is a movement that started a few years ago and spread across the country mostly by Internet. The authors of the book were some of the founding people in the movement. The movement itself grew out of a sense of un-ease with the way we Americans celebrate Christmas in contemporary society. The book suggests that over-spending on gift-giving, going into debt to buy presents, and the idea that our economy depends so much on people going out and shopping this time of year, that holiday shopping has become almost a patriotic duty – that these things do not honor the God whose birthday we celebrate on Christmas.
I find myself agreeing in principle with what the authors say but I have one issue with it. The authors of Advent Conspiracy are young suburban West Coast couples with young children – people with good jobs and traditional families – which is wonderful! But the issue I have is that their family situations are not the same as many average church-goers here in the Partnership. I know it’s not the same as our situation. My husband and I are middle-aged, not young. My husband is a blue-collar worker, not white-collar. My husband’s children are grown, and I don’t have any kids; and my siblings and I live in three different cities. We all decided years ago, both of our families, that we were not going to spend a whole lot on Christmas.
If this congregation is a typical Western PA congregation, many of you also have grown children, or maybe no children; you may be widowed; you may be single; you may be unemployed or under-employed. You may have a huge family and have already decided to just buy gifts for the kids.
Most of the families I know around here, having lived through first the Depression and then the collapse of the steel industry, have already worked out ways of not going overboard with Christmas. We already know that what’s important is family, not spending. People from Pittsburgh get that. It’s sort of in our bones.
Which leaves me with the question: does Advent Conspiracy really have anything to say to us?
I think it does, and here’s why. I think it encourages us to review how we celebrate Christmas, and it may give us a few good creative suggestions on how to make Christmas more meaningful, both for us, and for non-Christians around us who are watching how we celebrate.
So the focus of our Advent sermons has been the four main chapters of the book Advent Conspiracy, which are: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All. The idea is that we begin with God – with saying “thank you” to God for all He has done for us. And in that spirit, we commit to spending a little less during Advent so that we have more to give to those in need who God loves.
When Advent Conspiracy first started out (that is, the movement, not the book), the idea was to pool all the money saved from “spending less” and use it to build wells of clean drinking water for poor villages in Africa. One of the first churches to get involved, a church in Cincinnati, set a goal to raise $18,000 to build a well in Zambia. They ended up collecting $72,000 – and ended up building eight wells. Another church, in Missouri – a small church of 175 members – collected $13,000. They did that by committing to drink only water during Advent and donating what they normally would have spent on coffee and pop. Just that much was enough to build a well.
But there’s nothing that says we all have to go build wells. The idea is to be guided by God as to how our church can give in a personal way, where we see the needs. As I thought about this I thought, as examples, our Partnership churches might give to the education of children in Bethlehem – because we know someone who is doing that. It personally touches our congregations. Or we might give to help the senior citizens living in a high rise that is hosting one of our churches. Or we might give to revitalization efforts being made in each of the neighborhoods where our partnership has churches.
The idea of the book, though, is that it’s a good thing to do this as a church – as the body of Christ, working together to show God’s love in ways that are personal and meaningful to our congregation.
So that’s the background. This week, then – for the last week of Advent – our focus is on Loving All. As we worship God, and spend less, we will have more to give in order to express God’s love for all.
Just one word of caution: Without God’s leading, the money collected by an Advent Conspiracy project would quickly become just one more thing to debate over. If we decide to do something like this, it needs to be led by prayer and guided by God.
Having said all this, I’d like to consider the fact that expressing God’s love doesn’t always have to do with money – and I think that’s the other shortcoming in this book. In fact I would say most of the time expressing God’s love doesn’t have to do with money. Most of the time sharing God’s love involves our time, our talents, our expertise, our selves.
So if we take Advent Conspiracy’s suggestion to spend less and give more and apply it to how we live – we might spend less time on things like watching TV; spend less energy on what’s unimportant; and use the time we save to give more of ourselves. Bring our time and talents to God, and ask what God would have us do.
When we look at it this way, when we talk in terms of time and talents, people often say, “but I don’t have all that much to give. I don’t have a whole lot of spare time and I don’t have any special talents.”
A few weeks ago we read about the parable of the servants with the talents… how a servant with 10 talents went out and made 10 more, and the servant with 5 talents went out and made 5 more. God doesn’t ask the man with 5 talents to go out and make 10! God asks only that we use what we have… or more accurately, to allow God to use what we have.
That’s what Mary did in our reading for today. Think about it… what did she have to offer? She was just a teenage girl from a small town, engaged but not yet married, living in her father’s house… no job, no income, very little formal education (if any), no marketable skills. God asked Mary to be the mother of His child, the Messiah, and she said “yes”. That was her gift – saying “yes” to God. Believing that what God said was true. Trusting God to work out the details. Mary knew that a pregnant girl, unmarried, in her culture, would find life very difficult. (Being pregnant and unmarried is not easy in our own day. It was a lot tougher back then.) Mary never even mentioned that. She trusted God, and she was quick and willing to serve. She said, “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be with me according to your word.”
It’s amazing what God can do with one person who is pleased to be His servant… with one person who says “yes, Lord.” Look what God did with Mary’s life when she said “yes”. Imagine what God might do with our lives when we say, “yes Lord”.
After the angel left, Mary gave the world another gift: she sang a song… and it’s a song that men and women have been repeating for 2000 years. She sang this:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
This is the heart and soul of Christmas. It begins with God. We join Mary in magnifying the Lord, and in rejoicing at the arrival of the Saviour. We join Mary in declaring God’s favor towards us – the ‘lowly ones’ – we, who are not and never will be rich or famous or politically powerful, who are just average people. We join Mary in declaring God’s great and amazing mercy that reaches through the generations, that touched the lives of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and (if we know it) our ancestors back in the old country, and even before them.
We join Mary in rejoicing in a God who puts the proud and the powerful in their rightful places, and lifts up the lowly, and feeds the hungry – a God who keeps His promises – promises made as far back as Abraham. Because it was to Abraham that God said “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3) Through Abraham’s descendants would come the Messiah… that was God’s promise… and now the Messiah is here.
This is what Mary had to give. And this is what all of us have to give: good news: the King of kings is here, the Son of God, the God of love. This is our good news: God’s love is for the whole world.
God’s love is not an easy love. It’s a love that encompasses both mercy and justice; both compassion and truth. God’s love is a costly love. It will cost Jesus His life. But our God is a God whose very nature is love.
Mary knew God’s love, understood the time of God’s favor. She said ‘yes’ to God, and gave the world – Jesus. We also know God’s love, and at Christmas we share peace on earth, good will to all. Let us, with Mary, say ‘yes’ to God, and be honored to be counted among God’s servants. Placing ourselves in God’s hands, who knows what gifts God will give the world through us? AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 12/21/14