A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ A1 ~ Isaiah 2:1-5
We first encountered the concept of an Advent Conspiracy back in 2010 when we did our first well-digging project. I thought it was time we revisited that original concept and see what it feels like 14 years later.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that a few of the pre-programmed radio stations in my car have officially switched formats. It wasn’t even December yet and they’d already started ‘all-Christmas-music-all-day’. But here’s the thing, and it probably will not surprise you – there are virtually zero actual Christmas references in any of the music they play. 24 hours a day of Christmas music, but it’s all holidays, and snow, and family, and presents, (which are all lovely things), but no actual carols. They sing about singing carols but they don’t actually sing any carols! Figure that one out!
And between songs the announcers’ witty repartee is all about the crazy ups and downs of shopping, and decorating your house, and travelling home for Christmas celebrations. Everything you ever wanted to talk about regarding Christmas – except for one thing, of course – Jesus! The world has created, and seems to have no trouble whatsoever living, a bizarre oxymoron – a secular Christmas.
I wonder what would happen now if they passed a law and the Jesus piece was officially taken out of Christmas? What would be the impact of that for society? I’m not sure a lot of people would even notice. How about for you? Would you notice? Aside from your obvious church attendance, is Christmas functionally secular for you too?
A number of years ago I first encountered the phrase Merry Giftmas. Merry Giftmas. Well, at least they’re being honest. I mean, if they want nothing to do with the whole Jesus-God-incarnation thing then the least they could do is call their celebration something else!
This is what we’re up against. So how does the church answer? Usually we counter with a season called Advent – which means waiting for something that is coming. It has roots that go back to ancient Europe when the lead-up to Christmas had absolutely no commercialism whatsoever, and they saw it as a truly holy time. In fact, it was more like Lent – ponderous, weighty, penitential, all about sin and repentance and unworthiness. (Heck, we don’t even do Lent like that anymore!) Advent’s original liturgical colour was purple – like Lent – but over time we’ve shifted its meaning and changed the colour to blue.
So – traditionally, we’ve got sin, repentance, and ponderous weightiness on one side – and we’ve got a jolly old fat guy who gives you whatever you ask for, and laughs, and celebrates good times and family on the other side. Hmm, I wonder which one will be more popular!
No, I don’t think we should abandon Advent, or the seriousness of preparing ourselves spiritually for renewing our awareness and celebration of the coming of the light of God incarnated in the Christ child. We shouldn’t throw out the baby Jesus with the bath water. But we can’t ignore the culture either. And we can’t just wag our finger at it and say “tut-tut bad people.”
So what’s left? We can’t fight it and we can’t join it, so what’s left? Maybe we can transform it! So that’s what we’re going to try to do this season of Advent – we’re going to try to transform Advent and transform Christmas as we go. Watch this:
[watch “Advent Conspiracy” video]
It says “it began with worship.” However you think of the Christmas story – whether you think it happened exactly as it’s described in the various bible stories, or whether you think it’s entirely mythological, or whether you think something in-between – the thing to focus on is the response to this described event – both theirs, and ours. Literally or metaphorically, ‘something’ happened that we name as being so holy, and light-filled, and transformational that it is utterly dripping with God-ness.
Light, and power, and shalom became an operative and known reality in the world in a new way through a humble, poor, seemingly insignificant and weak person born 2000 years ago in a backwater little town in the middle of nowhere. And both in the bible stories and in our own story, the most important part of it is how they responded, and how you respond. We say that in the birth of Jesus God moved. How will you respond to God’s movement?
There’s really only one appropriate response – worship. When you encounter God’s presence manifested in such a profound, life-changing way, the only answer is to be swept away by the awe-someness of the experience, and feel your heart flutter and your legs wobble, and realize you’ve fallen to your knees in total and utter gratitude, and love, and reverence – in other words, worship.
Does your Christmas season begin with worship? Is your December grounded in worship? This is why it feels like Christmas needs transforming. Have you already started your Christmas preparations? Planning? Shopping? Christmas cards? How has the Christmas story – the story of Jesus – fit into your plans so far? Is it front and centre, or on the back burner? Are you thinking about it all the time, or saving it for the 24th?
So, to be counter-cultural, to practice what we preach, to seek to transform the world by loving others and lifting up the story of the nativity, we need to join together in a conspiracy – an Advent Conspiracy. We are conspiring together to act subversively – to quietly but steadfastly go against the flow and make the ‘reason for the season’ our ‘raison d’être’.
The big goal of our Advent Conspiracy is not just to get another well drilled in Africa (although, that is important) – the big goal is to transform our Christmas preparations and celebrations to be filled with God’s Christmas Presence. The desire to drill the well needs to be an outflow from our worship – not just another item to buy on our Christmas shopping list.
Let’s talk a bit about what worship is. To worship literally means to ascribe worth – it’s ‘worth-ship’. That means to say it has value – but it also carries at its heart a sense of wonder, and reverence, and awe, and most importantly celebration. So what exactly is it that we’re celebrating? We’re celebrating God and God’s presence. We’re saying that we value that Presence more than anything else because it is, in fact, at the very centre of everything we are and everything we do. And we’re celebrating how God’s Presence became tangibly real to people in a remarkable way, through the birth, life, and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
That’s why we can’t just ‘kind of’ worship; we have to worship fully. We have to be ‘all in’. And that’s why worship has to be something that goes far beyond the confines of this sacred hour in this sacred place. Worship needs to be something that permeates your whole life. Worship fully – not just when you’re here, or tuned-in online, but always, and in everything. And when you are here to be fully here, fully present, fully open to God’s presence. Understood this way, worship can never be seen as a Sunday morning add-on – worship is a transformative lifestyle.
The passage we heard from Isaiah this morning talks about worship. In ancient Jewish spirituality they equated high mountains with the place where you could be closest to God. It’s kind of like how we treat church – a special place where it feels like God’s Presence is amplified and more real. Isaiah 2:2 “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations (peoples) shall stream to it.”
So, the holy place for worshipping God is a place that people will stream to. Stream in Hebrew is naharu and it’s a verb that has two meanings: “flow like a river,” and “shine in joyful radiance.” How apropos for us this season. We are indeed seeking to naharu (to stream) to God this Advent and Christmas season – to have our worship flow like a river, to experience Christmas like a flowing river of God’s holy presence, and to have our hearts shine in joyful radiance as we are lit up by God’s light. And, of course, there’s the double meaning of the water of life flowing like a river of God’s love as we work toward having that well drilled, providing clean, flowing water that is life – naharu indeed!
People who ‘worship fully’ find their lives transformed in powerful ways. The prophet Isaiah knew that. In his vision, right after he describes us all streaming to worship, he paints a picture of how different the world could be if peoples’ hearts were really warmed by God’s Presence. It’s a powerful image – Isaiah 2:4 they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
That rings particularly poignantly considering the war in the Holy Land.
Ploughshares are the pointy part that digs into the ground on a plough. Pruning hooks are cutting tools on the ends of sticks to reach into fruit trees. How are worshipful people changed? They take their instruments of harm – swords and spears – and transform them into instruments of nurture – gardening tools. And they won’t wage war against one another anymore because all their swords and spears were beaten into ploughs and pruners. And neither shall they learn war anymore – because war and hatred are not natural for us – love is. We have to be taught to hate – which is an awful reality in our broken world – but it also means we can be taught something different – like love.
If you’re worshipping fully you’re not going to have much room in your heart for hatred and war. Isaiah is an unabashed optimist here. But he’s also real enough to describe the transformation as hard. Transforming a culture is very, very difficult – and the powers that be don’t want it to happen because it is profitable to them as it is, even as it hurts so many people. That’s why we need a conspiracy!
This Advent, if we focus on worshipping fully, on streaming toward the heart of God, flowing and shining, we can’t possibly get lost in the hubbub of Giftmas. It’s not too early to be starting your Christmas preparations – heck, we got a jump start here by decking the halls of this place in all sorts of Christmas finery last Sunday. Preparing for Christmas and celebrating Christmas are good things – just make sure it’s Christmas, and not Giftmas. Save your worship for something more worthy than malls and Santas. Don’t just enter the season – enter the story.
Every single day we can wake up, and pause a moment, and rejoice, and celebrate, (and worship) that the light of God is about to be born again in you – born again, and again, and again. We can rejoice and celebrate that Christmas didn’t just happen to Jesus, and the shepherds, and Mary and Joseph all those years ago, and it doesn’t just happen every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but that it happens each and every morning, to each and every one of us, as love is born anew, in us.
We bear the incarnation of God’s Spirit within us. We are lit up inside like a Christmas star. It’s not someone else’s story, or just an ancient story – it’s our story. Today. And as we enter into that story – the story of our lives – we are indeed worshipping God and celebrating God’s presence – fully! What better way to transform the Christmas story and Christmas season than to realize that we are part of it? What a deliciously counter-cultural answer to Giftmas!
So as we begin our Advent journey, let’s conspire together to boldly make our December about transforming Christmas. And as you go, go with the worshipful words of Isaiah ringing in your ears – Isaiah 2:5 “O people of Faith United, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” Amen.