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11.14.10 Keeping Things in Perspective, Matthew 6:19-24, James 5:1-6 Sermon Summary

by on November 17, 2010

Our church is part of the “Advent Conspiracy“: three practices that promise to help us worship fully when Christmas arrives for real. And that’s why we’ve started Advent a month early, because Christmas for fake has already arrived. If you really want to worship fully the week of December 25, you have to choose now to change your behavior. Practice 1 is to spend less.

Martin Luther, the great church reformation initiator, said three conversions were necessary in the church: the conversion of mind, heart, and purse. This year Americans are expected to spend 447 billion dollars ($447,000,000,000) on Christmas. Sixty percent of us will carry $13K of debt into the New Year. Our country is so obsessed with shopping, that the malls within our borders can comfortably hold all the people living in North and South America and Europe. Christmas shopping produces 5 million tons of additional trash. (Watch this.)

Is this what God envisioned when he sent Christ into the world? Indeed, our purses need to experience a Christian conversion. The evidence overwhelming indicates that they are devoted to other gods. And it’s easy to understand how this happens. The advertising to which we’re relentlessly subjected lures us with religious claims. Jim Wallis writes, “It is the great myth of modern advertising that mere prosperity can give us happy, fulfilled, and purposeful lives.” (God’s Politics, 237) If you talk about purpose in life, you’re talking religion. And consumerism has become the American religion of Christmas such that Max Weber can observe, “Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life.” (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism)

The problem with consumerism as religion, beyond the idolatry of it, is summarized by theologian Paul Tillich: “One of the fundamental expressions of sin is to make the other person into an object, into a thing. This is perhaps the greatest temptation in an industrialized society in which everybody is brought into the process of mechanical production and consumption, and even the spiritual life in all its forms is commercialized and subjected to the same process.”

Consumerism as idolatry and as sin detracts from the true meaning, intention, and revelation of Christmas—the desire of God that we be restored to a full humanity, a humanity characterized by being children of God, adopted in the Christ of Christmas. From this perspective, consumerism jeopardizes our very salvation because it dehumanizes us by making us producers, making us consumers, and blurring moral principles because we view ourselves and others not as beloved children of God, but as cogs in a machine.

It is against such a spirit of consumerism that James 5:1-6 is addressed. These are hard words addressed to the “rich.” As soon as we hear this word, “rich,” we think of someone else. We think of the person with the larger house, newer car, bigger salary. But to best understand the scriptures when they address the rich, we are better to hear “people with means.” For it is always the interest of the Bible that people with means help people without means. In other words, if you have means, you are “rich” according to scripture, and James 5:1-6 could be addressed to you—if you fall victim to consumerism, especially at Christmas.

Here are some strategies we can use to moderate our consumption. First, counter our consumer impulses with compassion. Think through the human implications of each purchase this Christmas. Ask yourself questions like: Is this a need or a convenience? Do I agree with the way the product is marketed? Does this company treat its employees well? Is this product recyclable? Whom does this purchase support? Do they need it? Does it support slavery, child labor, hostile regimes? Is this gift, like God’s gift at Christmas, life-giving?

Make yourself spend on a “shortened leash” this Christmas. Start by using only cash. Studies show people spend between 20-60% less if they use cash. In 2006, consumers charged 100 billion dollars. We could save at last $20 billion by using cash. Another spending leash is resolving to give proportionately. For example, you might resolve to give 20% of everything you spend on a gift, to a charity. So if you buy someone a $50 gift, it actually “costs” you $60 because of your commitment to give $10 to charity. That will actually help others as well as slow down your spending.

Or better yet, give donations to charities as gifts. Check back next week for several suggestions.

I really believe we can do this. And I really believe we must do this if we’re going to worship fully this Christmas. Now is the time! Sixty-three percent of Americans will start shopping this week. And how much we spend is a choice we make, and all of us can make it. In 2007 we spent $780 per person at Christmas. Then the economy tanked and in 2009 we “only” spent $682. That’s evidence that we can change our behavior. And don’t think staying even on the spending will yield as many gifts as last year, because retailers are prepared this year with smaller inventories so as to keep prices higher all season long. We have choices to make.

In the Christmas story of the Bible, the most prominent person who couldn’t worship fully was Herod, King of the Jews at Jesus’ birth. He was 33 years old when he ascended to that throne. Traditionally, Jesus was executed “King of the Jews” at age 33. Philippians 2 says that God resurrected Christ and exalted him above every name, making him King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Jesus said where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. God wants us to place our treasure with the Kingdom of heaven, not the kingdom of the earth. This Christmas, we must all decide: which 33 year old man will we follow as king? Who will get our treasure this year? Who will get our hearts? How you behave in your spending the next 6 weeks will answer that question, and determine whom you worship fully on Christmas.

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