Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully
Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2
Rev. Brian Bill
Note: The idea for this series and some content comes from a book by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder called, “Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World?”
Doesn’t it seem like there’s some “Christmas creep” going on in our culture? There have been Christmas commercials on TV for weeks and it seems like we went right from Labor Day to lights downtown. Normally our family decorates the tree after Thanksgiving but this year we did it last weekend because Emily was home and we knew she wouldn’t be around this weekend.
We started by pulling out all the boxes in the basement and began putting up the decorations and Nativity set in the front yard. We then all piled in the van to find the perfect Christmas tree. Because we were kicking off our Christmas season early, it was a bit of a challenge but we found some trees at a local store. We waited for someone to help us and even went inside to see if a worker could come out to assist us, but no one came. Realizing it was self-serve; we pulled off the netting holding the trees together and picked out the perfect one, paid for it, threw it on top of the van and drove home.
When we got home I remembered that the bottom of the tree needed to be cut off so it would be able to drink the water in the tree stand so we made our cut. Then we tried to get the tree in the tree stand but it wouldn’t fit. Beth and I aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer so we whacked off some branches and made another cut. It still wouldn’t fit so we cut off some more branches and quickly realized that no matter how many cuts we made it wasn’t going to fit in our stand. We were almost ready to call it quits on Christmas.
Beth and I both had a brief pity party and thought about throwing the tree on the curb and buying an artificial one but then we remembered that we had another stand and tried that one. It seemed to work well but we had to cut off some more branches in order to get the tree to fit. In the process our full-length tree shrunk considerably and we lost 14 branches off the bottom. We then brought the tree into the house, filled the stand with water, and started putting the ornaments on.
When we got up on Sunday we admired our tiny tree and went off to church. We hung out in the afternoon, watched the Packers win (again) and then had our small group. Later that night, I had just walked into the kitchen when I heard a scream and a loud crashing sound. I rushed back into the Living Room and saw that our Charlie Brown tree was on its side, with broken ornaments everywhere. On top of that, there was brown sappy water all over our white carpeting. We thought again about throwing this cursed tree on the curb but instead just put it out on the porch until we cooled down. On Monday we purchased tree stand #3, an industrial strength model, put the lights and ornaments back on and it’s still standing - at least it was when I left this morning.
The Advantages of Advent
While our Christmas season started with chaos and near catastrophe, we’re a lot calmer now. Against our culture’s call to consume the clutter of Christmas, stands the simple yet profound season of Advent. This word means “coming” and refers to a four week period of time set aside for prayer, penitence and preparation to help us slow down enough to savor the Savior’s birth. I see Advent as a spiritual journey that helps us focus on the greatest gift of all so that we can worship the Word made flesh with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. As we experience Advent, it strikes me that one can never start too early when getting ready for something really big.
We’ll be using an Advent Wreath with four candles, thought by some to represent the four centuries of waiting between Malachi and Matthew. We’ll light a different candle each week and hear different readings from families in our church to help us reflect on His first coming and prepare for His second. We want the beauty of Jesus to shine bright in the busyness of our lives. And that can only happen when we slow down.
We’re beginning a new series today called, “Advent Conspiracy.” The basic idea is that we want to take back the story of the Savior’s birth as we fight against the spirit of consumerism that has stolen the soul of Christmas. We want to substitute consumption with compassion by practicing four simple, but powerful, countercultural concepts – worship fully, spend less, give more, and receive love. This video explains more about where we’re headed.
Play Video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVqqj1v-ZBU&feature=related.
I love that last phrase, “you are free to conspire.” We’re going to have to work at it if we don’t want our Christmas to crash. To say that we are celebrating a conspiracy means that we’re conspiring against our cultural tendency to worship consumerism and instead to turn our hearts toward Christ. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “conspire” refers “to joining in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act.” While it’s not illegal to celebrate Christmas (yet), and I’m certainly not advocating doing something unlawful, we do need to join together to reclaim Christmas from the snares of our society. Interestingly, “conspire” also means “to act in harmony toward a common end.”
Since the things we desire are the things we end up worshipping, during this time of conspicuous consumption, we must take a fresh look at what really matters. I’m mindful of the fact that many of us sit in church disconnected from the story because we’re so far removed from the original events. One pastor puts it this way: “The story of Christ’s birth is a subversive story of an upside-down kingdom. It’s a story of promise, hope and revolutionary love that is still changing the world to this day. So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of the Savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams and shopping lists. And when it’s all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling that we somehow missed its purpose. What if Christmas became a world-changing event again by turning our focus back to the birth of Christ? What could happen to your family if this focus was celebrated in loud, bold and unexpected ways?”
Do you remember the tree that Charlie Brown ended up with and how he expressed his great frustration? In the midst of all the stress and the disappointment he yells out, “Does anybody remember what Christmas is all about?” Linus comes over to Charlie Brown and says, “I know what it is all about” and then he quotes the Christmas narrative from Luke 2. The lights go down and the simplicity of the Savior-story takes center stage.
How do we recalibrate our souls? How do we get back to the real reason for the season? Why is it that the time of the year when worshipping Jesus should be the easiest is often the hardest? What is Christmas all about? Let’s not allow another Christmas to pass us by like a blizzard, leaving us to shovel through shattered ornaments, dead tree branches, and broken dreams.
What would happen if instead of acting like bystanders to the nativity, we would enter the story as participants? Here’s what I think: When we understand Christmas more deeply, we will worship Christ more fully. We see this in how the Christmas characters responded when they encountered Immanuel. Their worship sprang from deep places of the heart that were touched for the first time by God-in-the-flesh. If you have your Bibles with you, please open them up to Matthew 1. Keep one finger there and then turn over to Luke 1-2.
O Worship the King
Worship is at the heart of Christmas and as we study these responses we’ll see a compelling picture of praise because when we understand Christmas more deeply, we will worship Christ more fully. The birth of Jesus is not on par with Rudolph and Frosty and Santa. This is not just a time of fuzzy sentimentality, as we sing about a “wonderful Christmas time.” It’s a time of wonder and awe and worship. Since worship is what we all long for, let’s take a look with fresh eyes at the Christmas characters to see how they responded to the birth of the Savior. After we look at each individual and how they responded I’ll ask a probing question that will help us apply the Incarnation to our lives.
1. Mary offered. Chosen to be the mother of the Messiah, Mary was a teenage girl engaged to marry a poor carpenter named Joseph. I love how God uses nobodies to do something great. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her, she was troubled and afraid but as she listened to an explanation of what was going to happen to her, she responded with words of surrender in Luke 1:38: “I am the Lord’s servant…may it be to me as you have said.”
Q: Have you ever offered yourself in surrender to the Lord as His servant?
2. John jumped. When Mary went and stayed with her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist, Elizabeth exclaimed in Luke 1:44: “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” There’s something about being in the presence of Jesus that should cause us to jump for joy, isn’t there? May I point out that Elizabeth refers to John as “the baby” even before he is born? That’s just one of the many texts in the Bible that speak of the preborn as alive and active.
Q: What’s holding you back from jumping with joy just to be in the presence of Jesus?
3. Mary magnified. Joining the rich tradition of poets and prophets, Mary composes a song of devotion to her Lord in Luke 1:46-55. Let’s look at just the first two verses: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary’s song is known as “The Magnificat,” which is Latin for magnify. Like a magnifying glass that helps us see what is often unseen, Mary bursts out into praise, extolling God’s attributes and His concern for the humble, helpless and hungry. Before we think more of Mary than we should, let me point out that she refers to God as her “Savior,” meaning that she was a sinner just like us in need of the salvation that only the Savior can provide.
Q: In what ways does your life magnify the Lord so that people can see Him?
4. Joseph obeyed. Joseph has a problem. His fiancée is pregnant, and the baby isn’t his. Though he could have flipped out and exposed Mary to public shame and punishment, his plan was to end things quietly. And that’s when the angel appears to him in a dream and tells Joseph to not break his pledge to Mary, because her baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He’s told in Matthew 1:21 that she will have a son and that Joseph is to give him the name Jesus, “because He will save His people from their sins.” I admire Joseph for his immediate obedience as stated in verse 24: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” Joseph reminds us that the call of God isn’t always easy or conventional, but it is always right – and God will give us the courage to follow if we’re willing to obey. When we understand Christmas more deeply, we will worship Christ more fully.
Q: In what ways is the Lord calling you to obey Him this Christmas season?
5. Angels adored. Let’s go back to the narrative in Luke 2:13-14. After giving the good news of great joy to the shepherds, we read this: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.’” The angels explode with praise as they contemplate how peace will now be given to people who were previously at war with God. We’re planning to pick up on what the interaction might have been like among the angels during our Christmas Outreach service at PTHS in three weeks.
Q: If the angels adored and gave glory to God, in what specific way can you do the same?
6. Shepherds hurried. Despised as thieves unfit for polite society, the shepherds lived on the outskirts of towns and were shunned by most people. Don’t miss this – God loves the overlooked! Choosing them to celebrate the good news of the Savior’s birth, we read in Luke 2:15 that they are very eager to see the Savior: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” These slow-moving men, who were used to lazily walking with their sheep, put it in high gear and scurry off to the stable in verse 16: “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” And then, after seeing the Savior, verse 17 tells us that they “spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.”
Q: In what ways do you need to confess your hesitancy and instead be in a hurry to worship?
7. Simeon praised. Some days after Jesus was born Joseph and Mary took Him to the Temple to present Him to the Lord. A man named Simeon had been waiting for a long time for the Savior to be born and Luke 2:26 tells us that the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before seeing the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he comes face-to-face with Jesus in the Temple and verses 28-30 say that “Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation…’”
It’s not easy to wait, is it? Simeon waited a long time for God to show up. It’s when we wait, that we can be moved to worship. I’ve been struck by how our missionary Gary Varner is praising, even though he is facing some serious health problems. Listen to what he wrote in an email this past Wednesday: “I have more strength today. The pain is lessening. I have many doctors’ visits and a minor surgery to put in a port (for chemotherapy) over the next few days. We hope to start chemo soon. The doctors say that the lung cancer is ‘well advanced.’ But I can already feel the power of many prayers. God is so good and He is holding me as a daddy would a young son. I have no questions about God’s goodness or care for me. He is so good -- he is my joy, my strength and my daddy. He gives peace that surpasses all understanding. This is not the path I would’ve chosen, but the choice is not mine. If He deems me worthy to represent Him through this ordeal -- then I will to His glory.
Q: When we see God’s salvation unleashed in our own lives, how can we not praise God, even in the midst of our problems? Think right now of one of your problems. Can you say, “God, I will praise you in and through this problem?”
8. Joseph and Mary marveled. After hearing what Simeon said we read in verse 33 that “The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about Him.” Though they had both been told that their son was the Savior, I’m sure they had a difficult time comprehending everything. The word “marvel” means “to admire” or “wonder.” Every parent is pleased when someone says something nice about their child but this was much more than that. Perhaps they understood that Jesus was the Savior for Israel but when Simeon stated that He was also “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” in verse 32, it took awhile for them to fully understand that He is the Savior of the whole world. What Simeon said went way beyond what the angel had outlined.
Q: What will you do differently to make sure you spend time marveling this Christmas?
9. Anna witnessed. As Joseph and Mary continue to wonder and marvel, they then encounter an elderly widow named Anna. I love how God orchestrates the timing of everything in life. Check out verse 38: “Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” She had waited a long time to see the Savior and now she couldn’t help but thank God and speak about Jesus to everyone in Jerusalem. I recognize that Thanksgiving is over, but we should never stop thanking or stop telling people about Jesus.
Q: Our Christmas outreach at PTHS will be in three weeks. Think of three people right now who don’t yet know Christ. Will you make the ‘ask’ as you speak about the Savior?
10. Wise men worshipped. Many months later, perhaps up to two years, we read about some scholarly astronomers coming from Persia to worship the one born King of the Jews. When they finally find Jesus we know that they gave expensive gifts to Him but I want you to notice what they do before they give their gifts. Turn back to Matthew 2:11: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped Him. Then they opened their treasures…” God is more interested in our bowing than with the bows we put on our gifts. He wants us before He wants what we have. Or to say it another way, He wants to own us before we give Him what we own. He wants our hearts before He wants what’s in our hands; He wants our presence, more than our presents. The word “worship” here means “having fallen, they prostrated themselves and intensely adored Him.”
Q: How would you rate your worship? Have you ever fallen before Him in faith and received Him into your life?
Words of Worship
When we understand Christmas more deeply, we will worship Christ more fully. Let me put these top ten words of worship together because I think it will help us see in what areas we need to increase our adoration. These Christmas characters Offered…Jumped…Magnified…Obeyed... Adored…Hurried…Praised…Marveled…Witnessed and Worshipped.
Those Who Refuse to Worship
As I read through the nativity narrative, I see two groups who won’t worship. I wonder if you find yourself in one of them.
1. The Intolerant. That would be hateful Herod. He goes crazy in his attempts to kill the Christ of Christmas. Maybe that describes you. Frankly, you don’t care for Christmas and you’re not all that crazy about Christians either.
2. The Indifferent. Or maybe you’re more like the religious guys who totally missed the coming of the Messiah. They were so caught up in their rituals and routines that they missed Christmas. Sadly, they even knew the right answers about where the Messiah was to be born but resisted being born again themselves.
It’s easy for religious people to take Jesus for granted. At the first Christmas, the ritually religious are nowhere to be found because they misunderstood, miscalculated and underestimated God’s simple plan of salvation.
Action Flows from Adoration
As I read the Christmas narrative again this week, it struck me that it’s impossible to stay the same when we encounter the Savior because adoration always leads to action. Worship leads to work. The story of Christmas is still unfolding and it still inspires action. Here are some ways we can choose to enter the story.
1. Tell the story of Christmas because it’s our story to tell. Instead of getting all bent out of shape when a store employee says, “Happy Holidays,” let’s remember that Christmas is our story to tell. We’ve been talking in our small group about how we can answer people’s questions when they ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?” In our culture that means, “Is your shopping done?” We want to recapture what Christmas really means so we can leverage our conversations for Christ. One person suggested we say something like, “I’m trying to get my heart ready…” Someone else is responding by saying, “I’m preparing myself for worship.”
2. Sit down with your family and discuss how you can approach Christmas differently this year. Manage your schedule coming into the Christmas season in a way in which worship is front and center for your family. Here’s an idea. Ask each member of your family which Christmas Character they most want to model – Mary who offered and magnified, John who jumped, Joseph who obeyed, the angels who adored, the shepherds who hurried, Simeon who praised, Joseph and Mary who marveled, Anna who witnessed, or the wise men who worshipped. Another idea is to use an Advent Wreath and read part of the Christmas story from Scripture every day.
3. As you strive to worship fully this Advent, be thinking of ways you can spend less so that you can give more. This quote by Eric Hoffer has really messed with me: “You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.” Instead of buying what people don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like, here are some worthy ways to give this season.
- Christmas Baskets. Last year we helped over 50 families in the community. If you want to give to this simply make a note on your check indicating that it is for Christmas Baskets.
- Participate in a special offering for the unemployed in our church on Christmas Eve.
- Orphan Care. Check out this online catalog that lists practical ways to care for orphans: www.lifesongfororphans.org.
- Project Angel Tree. We’ve participated in this ministry that provides gifts for children of prisoners in past years but this year we were not given any names for children. If you’d still like to participate, you can do so online: www.angeltree.org.
- Other ideas. For more ideas on how to give your “presence” this season, visit: www.adventconspiracy.org.
4. Invite at least three people to our Christmas service at PTHS on December 20th.
5. Let’s sing in response to what we’ve learned together this morning. When we understand Christmas more deeply, we will worship Christ more fully. Psalm 71:25 says, “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to you.” Sing along with the Christ-centered Christmas music this season.
Where do you stand this morning (hold up Christmas tree stand)? This is not just a story or a fable or a tradition. Just as these Christmas characters worshipped when they witnessed the Word becoming flesh, so too, we are invited into the story, to worship fully with our lives. Don’t let our cultural chaos cause you to crash this Christmas.
We’re going to conclude our service with a time of singing. If you sense a need for prayer, we’re going to invite you to come up front where one of the pastors or elders will pray with you.