Rev. John Watts
November 29, 2015
Nampa First UMC
THE ADVENT CONSPIRACY: HOPE
Jeremiah 33:7-11, 15
If you listen to talk radio during the day, you will probably be exposed to a conservative perspective on what’s happening in the news. But if you listen late at night, the programming format changes. That’s when you will start hearing about alien life forms, paranormal activity, and conspiracy theories.
I’m seldom awake that late, but occasionally I’ll stumble upon George Noory or Art Bell. I’ll never listen long. Those guys creep me out. They and their callers have some strange ideas. John Kennedy was assassinated by Richard Nixon. 9-11 was planned by George W. Bush. Barack Obama is building concentration camps for Americans who disagree with him. People who believe such things are sometimes said to be part of the tin-foil hat crowd. That’s why there’s a guy wearing a tin-foil hat on the screen right now. There’s another conspiracy theory that says the government is trying to interfere with our brain waves and a hat made of tin-foil is our only real protection.
A conspiracy is a secret plan to do something you wouldn’t get away with if everyone knew what you were up to. Usually what you’re plotting to do is something bad. But in the case of the Advent Conspiracy, we’re going to be plotting something good, starting today and throughout the season of Advent. We’re going to be taking on the way we’ve always been taught to celebrate Christmas.
We’re not exactly on the cutting edge with our conspiracy. It’s been around awhile. It started in 2006 with three pastors: Rick McKinley of Imago Dei in Portland, Oregon; Chris Seay of the Ecclesia in Houston, Texas; and Greg Holder of The Crossing near St. Louis, Missouri. It has spread now all over the world. Over 1500 churches are involved, including us. The tenets of this conspiracy are simple. And revolutionary. Worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.
Here is Thursday’s edition of the “Idaho Statesman”. It is maybe 5% news and 95% ads. It barely fit into our newspaper receptacle. It’s full of ideas on how to spend our money during the few shopping days that remain before Christmas. Many of us spend more than a quarter of the money we spend all year on material possessions between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Retail businesses count on that. And the underlying message is that Christmas is really all about stuff. Christians who should know better all too often get sucked right in and Advent becomes a season of overspending and overdoing and stress and exhaustion and regret. We make a New Year’s resolution that we’re not going to do that again, but 11 months later here we are, programmed like zombies to play our part in this annual festival of insanity. We feel powerless to resist.
The Advent Conspiracy is an invitation to dare to be different. Really to dare to be Christian. It’s a reminder that Christmas is the birthday of Jesus. Jesus is honored when we worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.
Actually the Advent Conspiracy began long before those three pastors cooked up the idea. It was God’s idea long before it was theirs. It was God’s idea even before Jesus was born. If we’re going to do Christmas right this year, the place to begin is the Old Testament.
Our Bible is divided into two parts. There is an Old Testament and there is a New Testament. The Old Testament is about twice as long as the New Testament. It’s also older. That’s why they call it the Old Testament. (I know this is getting pretty heavy, but hang in there with me.) The birth of Jesus is found in the New Testament. The Old Testament was written over a span of about 1000 years. It was completed maybe 450 years before Jesus was born. So you wouldn’t expect to find Jesus in the Old Testament. Right? Wrong. God spoke often about Jesus even before Jesus was born. God spoke through the prophets.
Let’s look at the way the Old Testament is arranged.
The first five books are given various names: the Pentateuch or the Torah or the books of Moses. Then there are books of poetry and books of history. But of the 39 books of the Old Testament, 17 of them are the prophets. They are often divided into major prophets and minor prophets, not based on how important they are but on how long they are. (That’s why the names of some books are bigger than others.)
One of the prophets was Jeremiah. We read from Jeremiah today and we’re going to be spending some time with that reading later, but first I want us to look at the prophets in general. There are four important things to know about them.
(1) They were more interested in changing the present than in predicting the future. It’s true, many of them did predict the future. The prophets did record prophecies about what God was about to do. But when they did, it wasn’t to show off. It wasn’t so future generations would be impressed at what good fortune tellers they were. It was either to warn people so they could change their ways before it was too late (and there are Old Testament prophecies that did not come true because the warning worked). Or it was to comfort people by telling them that the hard times they were facing were not going to last. So hang in there. Don’t give up. There’s hope for your present in this beautiful prophecy about what God is going to do in the future.
(2) The second thing to know about the prophets is that they stood up for the underdog. If you were privileged and powerful, you probably would hear things from the prophets you didn’t want to hear. But if you were a nobody — beaten down, mistreated, forgotten — if everybody who was anybody was against you, you could be pretty sure that at least the prophets would be on your side.
While most of you were watching BoiseState Friday afternoon, I was watching the game I never miss. The Civil War game, Oregon against OregonState. In recent years this has been a pretty evenly matched game. Both teams have been strong. This year the Ducks were favored by 33 points. They won by 10. It got pretty interesting near the end. I love both teams, but guess who I was rooting for? The underdog. If the Old Testament prophets had been in my TV room watching that game, they would have been rooting for the Beavers right along with me.
In Proverbs it says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves” (31:8). That’s what the prophets were doing. Speaking up for widows and orphans, the helpless, the hopeless, the weak, the powerless. The underdogs. God was on their side. The prophets made sure we knew it.
And the prophets paid a price for making sure we knew it. Those who were in the business of oppressing the underdogs didn’t appreciate hearing that what they were doing made God angry. They took it out on the prophets. Jeremiah for example, the prophet we are looking at today, was under house arrest for the latter part of his life. Pretty much universally the prophets were forbidden from speaking, arrested, beaten, or killed. Sometimes all four and in that order.
(3) Third, the prophets condemned all sin, but two sins in particular: idolatry and injustice. An idol is whatever we worship instead of worshiping God. Idolatry is the sin of worshiping these false gods.
Here’s why that was such a serious sin. God had rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. They were now God’s own people. God had done miracles for them. God had given them a land and a hope and a promise to love them and protect them and always be with them. So what do they do to express their appreciation? They start worshiping the gods of the people around them — statues made of stone or wood or metal. They would bow down and worship these and forget the one true God. That’s idolatry.
You can hear the heart of God in the writings of the prophets. You can hear how much it hurts to have your own children reject you. I’m sure some of you can relate to that. You’ve loved a child and that child, now grown, has rejected your love. It hurts. The prophets humanize God. God is powerful but God also has feelings. God longs to have his wayward children return to him.
The second favorite sin for the prophets to condemn was injustice. The words “justice” and “righteousness” are often used interchangeably in the Old Testament. They appear more than 1000 times. God cares about justice and righteousness. What these words mean is doing the right thing, being in a right relationship with God, a right relationship with other people, showing compassion and mercy, making sure people are treated fairly, standing up for those who are mistreated. All this is summarized by Jesus when he said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Mt 22:39).
Rich Stearns is the president of “World Vision”, a Christian organization that is doing battle with the root causes of injustice and poverty worldwide. Rich Stearns wrote a book called The Hole in Our Gospel. He talks about the hole that was in his Gospel and in many of ours. He always thought of his Christian faith as fire insurance. It would keep him out of hell. It would get him into heaven. It would help him live a good life. Part of living that good life would be telling other people about Jesus. But that was about it.
Then he started traveling to Third World countries and seeing first-hand how so many on this planet live. And what bothered him most is that these were fixable problems. Things like bad water and poor farming practices and preventable diseases like malaria. But the resources to fix these problems were not to be found in the Third World. They were in the First World. Our world. Where we waste so much money on Christmas.
He took another look at Ephesians 2, that verse he had memorized from childhood that says we’re saved by faith, not by works. He noticed the very next verse, a verse he hadn’t really paid much attention to before: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (2:10). Good works. We’re not saved by them. But we’re saved so we can do them. That’s the hole in the Gospel for lots and lots of Christian people.
I’m proud as your pastor to say I don’t see that hole here. You just sent 35 Operation Christmas Child boxes. You took almost every angel tree tag off our tree on the first Sunday it was up. You’ve paid to train Steve Hatch’s service dog. You’ve rallied behind “Suitcases for Dignity” in a major way. You respond very generously each time we put out an appeal.
The prophet Amos said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:24). You do that here. We’re going to give you an opportunity to do more of that as part of our Advent Conspiracy. But first, one more thing to know about the Old Testament prophets.
(4) They gave warning and they promised comfort. This brings us to Jeremiah and our scripture for today. Jeremiah did both. He gave warning and he promised comfort.
Jeremiah lived during dark days for Israel. The northern kingdom had already been destroyed by the Assyrians, never to be heard from again. The southern kingdom, where Jeremiah lived, was on the brink of destruction by the Babylonians. There was kind of an end of the world mentality among the Jewish people in those days. Everything was going wrong. Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, things got worse. All hope for a brighter tomorrow was gone.
Jeremiah had given 30 years of warnings and now what he had warned would happen was happening. In fact, by now it was too late to do anything about. Jeremiah told his people to surrender to the Babylonians. At least that way they would live. But they didn’t surrender. And in 586 BC Jerusalem was burned to the ground, the Temple was destroyed, many were killed, and 4,600 of their best and brightest leaders were taken away in chains to Babylon.
We need to pay attention to this. When God withholds his blessing because we’ve turned away from him, sometimes things happen we wish wouldn’t happen. There is pain. There is suffering. There are consequences. It isn’t that God is punishing us. We are the ones who are bringing the punishment on ourselves when we go in a way that God has warned us is not a good way to go.
But here’s the thing: With the warning the prophets also send comfort. God is a God of judgment but God is also a God of redemption. So no matter how dark things might get in our lives or in our world, there is always hope. The prophets were saying, “Comfort ye my people” (Isaiah 40:1), even before the destruction had come. They were talking about the return from exile even before the exile had begun. They could see the judgment, but they could also see the redemption.
Jeremiah, before the end of the world as far as the Jews were concerned had even come, was already talking about hope for their future. It’s one of the truly amazing verses of the Bible, one that many choose as their life verse. It’s our memory verse for today. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
And the passage we read today, before Jerusalem has even been destroyed describes Jerusalem as it will be when it is rebuilt.
There shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: “Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the Lord.
It’s in these passages of comfort and hope that we find the first hints of God’s Advent Conspiracy. God is planning something big. Something huge. Something unbelievable. Even the prophets found themselves lost for words as they described what God had in mind.
“A righteous branch will spring forth for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” That’s how Jeremiah put it (33:15). A little cryptic. A little mysterious. A little subject to interpretation. It was only after Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again that is was possible to look back at passages like this one and all the others and understand them in their full meaning.
A new king was coming. A king unlike any they had known before. A king who cares more about justice and righteousness than conquest and riches. And in these very passages that hint at God’s Advent Conspiracy of Jesus, there are more than just hints about what God expects of us. It really is quite clear. We are to work for justice and righteousness. We are to make hope real simply by loving people.
The churches that participate in the Advent Conspiracy each year have made “Living Waters International” their mission project. They’ve done a lot to improve the quality of drinking water all over the world. They are closing in on $10 million raised.
We’re asking you in this Advent season to consider a gift to “Imagine No Malaria”. I don’t know if you know the story, and I don’t have time to tell it very thoroughly, but it is an amazing story. Malaria is the most deadly preventable and curable disease in the world today. Most of those who die are children. So the UnitedMethodistChurch took on a goal in 2010 to raise $75 million to rid the world of malaria. When that goal was announced, people laughed. There’s no way we could come close to that much money. Well, the people of the United Methodist church have now passed the $68 million mark. That’s 90% of the goal. Here in the Pacific Northwest our part of that is $1 million. We’re at $810,000 right now. That’s 81%. We’re going to get there if we all work together.
We’ve been challenged by our district superintendent, Kim Fields and our bishop, Grant Hagiya to see how much we can give to “Imagine No Malaria” in this season of Advent. I’d like us to set a goal for our church to raise $3,000. And Helen and I want to be first. So here’s our check for $300.
I want to close with a story I just heard. Tylar Aggen is 6 years old, almost 7. He’s in one of our Kids Stuff families. Tylar’s birthday is the week before Christmas. It’s a tough time to have a birthday. The Christmas presents and the birthday presents kind of get mixed together you can end up on the short end of the stick. And Tylar’s mom told me he’s into presents just like any kid that age would be.
But Tylar is also aware that there are other kids who have a whole lot less than he does. This bothers him. It bothered him so much that he came up with an idea of what he could do to help. Tylar gets a weekly allowance of 75¢. He also does chores for his grandparents and they pay him. So from this income stream, Tylar has been filling a mason jar with the money he wants to give to a needy family this Christmas. His mom told me she was going to bring the jar to church last week but Tylar told her to wait. He wants to get it a little fuller before he gives it all away.
I want to be more like Tylar. How about you? Worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all. Let’s all conspire to be part of the Advent Conspiracy.
Dear God, Christmas is about giving, not getting. It’s about honoring Jesus by giving birthday gifts to him. It’s about loving others as we love ourselves. As we begin Advent this year, before we get caught up in the frenzy of the way we’ve always celebrated this season, may we reflect on what we’re going to do differently this year. May we think about Jesus. May we offer ourselves to his unfinished work. In his name, Amen.