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Later On, We'll Conspire

Reclaiming the world-changing and life-giving power of Christmas


There's something subversive about Christmas. To subvert something is to overthrow it, usually by indirect means. Subversion isn't a frontal assault; it's a stealth campaign. The prefix, sub, means "from below" and -vert comes from the Latin for "to turn." So to subvert something is to turn it from below; in other words, to turn it upside down.

Think about one of the most famous Christmas stories of all, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The rich and powerful Scrooge is brought to his knees by Christmas ghosts, while the poor and lowly Bob Cratchit rises above his circumstances to find true joy.

How about Rudolph? The poor little misfit can't even join the reindeer games, let alone hope to earn a place on Santa's team. But an unexpected storm turns his dis-ability into an asset, and he becomes the hero.

How about the folks down in Whoville? The Grinch thinks he's ruined their Christmas by stealing their stockings and stuffing. But they turn the tables on him and wake up singing anyway. Next thing you know, the Grinch is carving the roast beast.

And how about good old Charlie Brown? Everyone tells him he has to have a big, brassy tree and a flashy Christmas pageant. But he refuses to go along. He buys the saddest tree that money can buy. And with a little help from Linus and Luke chapter 2, he discovers the true meaning of Christmas!

There's something subversive about Christmas. It overthrows the established order. It turns things upside down. But we shouldn't be surprised at that. It's always been that way. As we're going to discover today, the birth of Jesus Christ was the most subversive act in human history.

This year we are joining hundreds of churches and organizations around the world in a grassroots movement known as the Advent Conspiracy. The Advent Conspiracy began back in 2006 with five churches who decided that together they would resist the hype and consumerism of the holiday season. They conspired to spend less, give more, worship fully, and love all, to see if Christmas could still change the world and their lives. They discovered the answer was "yes" on both counts. Together they raised half a million dollars to provide clean water to thousands of villages, and along the way they discovered a joy and a meaning that had eluded them in Christmas done the usual way.

This year they expect as many as 2000 churches to join the Conspiracy. If you're not sure how you feel about an upside-down Christmas tree, let me assure you the Conspiracy is not about ruining Christmas, skipping Christmas, or demonizing Santa. It's not about trashing your traditions and giving everyone sermon CDs for Christmas—though they do make wonderful stocking stuffers. It is about showing the world a better way; resisting the crass consumerism of our contemporary Christmas, and reclaiming the world-changing, life-giving power of the first Christmas. What we're going to learn this week is that when we intentionally spend less on Christmas stuff, we set our money and ourselves free for better things.

So let me take you back to that first Christmas, and show you how this movement got started. Let's go to Luke 1:26, when the angel appeared to Mary.

Oppressed and captive people

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.' Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name, Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. Luke 1:26-33

There's certainly something sweet about this scene, commonly referred to as the Annunciation. It's been depicted in artwork down through the centuries and in all cultures all over the world. We perceive it as a tender moment between this heavenly messenger and a humble young woman. And to a certain extent that's true.

What we miss, unfortunately, is the subversive nature of this visit. Notice, first of all, to whom the angel is sent. Not to someone in power—a priest or a politician—but to a peasant. Not even to a man, for that matter, but to a woman. There's something upside-down about that. Christmas begins at the bottom of the social order. And how about the notion of a child being born to a virgin? That's certainly not the established order of things.

But the revolutionary nature of this visit becomes more evident when we come to the words the angel spoke, "You will give birth to a son … He will be great … the throne of his father David … his kingdom will never end."

Remember that at this time, the Jews are an oppressed people, and they have been for a very long time. Their land is occupied by Roman soldiers, and they are ruled by Roman-appointed governors and officials. They're not slaves, exactly. But they are, in effect, held hostage by Rome. The empire allows them to practice their religion so long as they pay their taxes and bow to Rome's authority.

They're economically oppressed, too. There's no middle class in ancient Palestine. There's a small wealthy and powerful class within Judaism, but the majority of the people are peasants; many of them living day to day or at best season to season. For a long time now the people have been dreaming of a better day, of freedom from Rome, freedom to pursue their own destiny as individuals and a nation.

Suddenly, behind closed doors, a messenger comes with news of a deliverer, of a throne, of a kingdom that will never end. That kind of talk is treasonous in an empire like Rome. These are incendiary words. The angel is talking about setting Israel free. This is nothing short of a revolution.

We can't appreciate the meaning of that first Christmas without recognizing that it came to an oppressed and captive people. And we can't celebrate a contemporary Christmas without recognizing that oppression and captivity are still realities in our world today.

Modern oppression and captivity

They tell us that 30 million men, women, and children are in some form of slavery in the world today. We saw the new Lincoln film this weekend, which tells the story of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in this country. It was a great victory and set free four million slaves. Yet here we are a century and a half later, and there are more slaves in the world today than at any time in human history.

As many as two million are enslaved in the sex trade, and millions more are working in sweat shops, mines, and quarries, with no hope of a better life. Children who should be in school and playing hide-and-seek are making bricks or stitching clothing for 12 hours a day. Such slavery and oppression is fueled in large part by the world's demands for consumer goods at the cheapest possible price. Our Christmas shopping frenzy helps to drive and sustain those oppressive conditions.

What is less obvious is that many of us in the West have also been taken captive by the consumerism and materialism of our culture, and of Christmas in particular. Americans will spend $450 billion this Christmas. Nearly two-thirds of them will carry debt into the new year, thus indenturing themselves to the banks and credit card companies.

Over the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend this year, Americans spent $59 billion, that's an increase of 13 percent over last year. 16 percent of those sales were from mobile devices, meaning people are now shopping from their cars, waiting rooms, and couches in response to an ad they saw on TV.

This consumer culture is no accident—it is inflicted on us. I happened to catch a few minutes of a CNN interview with the CEO of one of the cable shopping outlets. She was describing the strategies they use to get people to spend more money. This CEO said, "We want to keep [them] engaged in a 24/7 shopping experience, in which something new is always being offered, in price ranges that appeal to every kind of consumer." Most stores and businesses offer lay-away plans that encourage people to spend more money than they have, and then lock them into many months of payments.

The established order tells us that if we shop early we'll save money. The truth is the earlier you start, the more you are likely to spend. People who start shopping before Thanksgiving will spend 14 percent more than the average Christmas shopper.

They have us convinced that if we shop the sales we'll save money. The truth is people who shop sales generally spend more money than those who pay full price. The reason is that shopping sales encourages people to spend more money than they intended or can afford.

They have us convinced that if we shop on-line we'll get better deals, but again the facts reveal that people who shop on-line generally spend more than those who shop the conventional ways.

They have us convinced that the people on our list will only be happy if they have the best, biggest, and most stuff under the tree, and that the measure of our love is the amount of money that we spend. Have you seen the commercial for the guy who gives his wife a car for Christmas? She is happy and excited, until a nicer car drives by, and she's no longer happy with the one she got.

The truth is—we're being played and exploited. We've been taken captive by a system that says we have to shop more, spend more, and get more to have a merry Christmas. One survey tells us that the holiday season is so stressful financially that 45 percent of Americans would rather just skip it! When someone makes you do something you don't want to do, that someone has taken you captive.

Taking notice of the oppressed

After receiving this news from the angel, Mary goes off to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who is also miraculously expecting a child in her old age. When Elizabeth hears Mary's voice, and feels the child within her leap for joy, she pronounces a blessing on Mary. And at that point, Mary breaks into a song of praise; a song we refer to as the Magnificat. Listen to it, and listen in particular for the subversive elements.

My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the mighty one has done great things for me - holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down the rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers. Luke 1:46-55

The song begins as any good hymn or praise song begins—rejoicing in the character and work of God. But it soon strikes a subversive tone. Notice the second line of verse 48, " … for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant." Remember that Mary is a peasant and a woman. She's not accustomed to being noticed, let alone being visited by a distinguished guest or entrusted with an important assignment. "From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the mighty one has done great things for me." She can hardly believe it: God has noticed her, and her "humble estate," meaning, her poverty and lowliness. And not just her, but others in her condition: "His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation."

We tap into the subversive side of Christmas when we become "mindful" of people that are often forgotten or ignored. Invisible people—the materially poor, the homeless, the prisoner, the lonely. Now this already happens to a certain degree at Christmas—people toss change into Salvation Army buckets, sing in nursing homes, or donate toys for Toys for Tots. It's why we often give gifts to letter carriers, newspaper deliverers, and trash collectors. We want these folks to know that we notice them and value them.

But the Advent Conspiracy challenges us to be even more intentional and more thoughtful about this, to educate ourselves about injustice and oppression in our world, and to pray and give and reach out personally to those who so often are overlooked.

One way to do that is through the Angel Tree project. It reminds us that some people will not be home for the holidays. They'll be in prison. They won't be able to buy gifts for their kids, and the kids won't have mom or dad with them. If you were to spend a little less on your friends and family this year, you could buy a gift or a camp scholarship for some of these kids. If you did a little less shopping this season, you might have some time and energy to come and wrap some of those gifts, or even to deliver them to children the Saturday before Christmas. What a memorable and meaningful Christmas that would be for your family!

But the subversive nature of Mary's song gets even more pointed—"He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble." Do you see the upside-down thing happening? Those on top—the proud and powerful—being brought low. And the humble and lowly being lifted up. "He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty." This wasn't just a praise chorus. This was a protest song! This is Bob Dylan singing "Blowin' in the Wind." This is the Black Eyed Peas singing, "Where is the Love?"

Christmas isn't just about peace and joy. It's about justice. It's about the lowly being lifted up, the hungry fed, and the oppressed set free.

Did you know that in the 1980's, the government of Guatemala outlawed the Magnificat? People were not permitted to read or speak Mary's song in public because it was so threatening to those in power. If the poor began to believe that someone noticed them, if they began to imagine a society in which their needs would be met and their dignity restored, they'd have a revolution on their hands.

And that's what the Advent Conspiracy is about—a revolution. A grassroots campaign to overthrow the consumerism of the holidays and to change the world in Jesus' name.

Spend less to help others

Our theme for this week is "Spend Less." There's nothing wrong with giving gifts to people we love and decorating our homes to make the world a bit more beautiful at Christmas. But we can do those things without spending so much that we put ourselves in debt and have nothing left to share with those who really need it.

So the idea is to be intentional and creative about spending a little bit less than we typically would at Christmas, and less than the system would tell us we need to spend. It could be as simple as giving one less gift, or buying one less decoration for the house, and giving that money to a good cause. Maybe you want to figure out how much you typically spend for the holidays, and decide to spend one or two or 10 percent less this year. They tell us that the average household will spend $854 on Christmas gifts this year. Wouldn't it feel good to give a small portion of that to people who really need it?

I realize that most of us have kids in our lives, and we surely want to show them our love and make the holidays special. But what if you gave just one less gift than you typically do? Would their Christmas be any less merry? Some parents make it a practice to give just three gifts at Christmas, in the spirit of the magi who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus. What if you sat down with your kids and talked about people who had less, and together decided where you would give a special gift? What kind of impact might that have on them?

Spending less might mean giving homemade gifts, or giving something you already own that you know someone else would enjoy. There's nothing wrong with re-gifting, if it's a good gift. Instead of giving trinkets or candles to people who already have enough of them—give them some homemade cookies, or a card telling them how much you appreciate them. Instead of letting sales and ads drive your shopping this year, do a little research to find the companies that are committed to fair trade. The Not For Sale website has an app called free2work that can help you shop responsibly and compassionately.

Spending less means that instead of asking "what" when it comes to gift giving—"what will I get them?"—ask "who?" and "why?" Focus on the person and give something purposeful and meaningful.

Our kids still talk about the year I gave Karen a gift that made her cry. Not the "you gave me a vacuum" kind of crying, but the "how did you know" kind of crying. Karen has always loved geography and has always had a heart for world missions. So one year I gave her a globe. Now I gave her other gifts that cost a lot more, but that was the one that made her cry, because it meant something to her personally.

We have a tradition of giving the kids a warm-up gift on Christmas Eve. A few years ago we started giving them something from the World Vision catalog. We donate something we think would be meaningful for each one—a goat, soccer equipment, etc.—wrap a picture of it, and hand them out on Christmas Eve. As we go around the room and discover what each one has given, we remind ourselves of the needs of our world, and we begin our holiday feeling grateful instead of grabby.

An upside down world

When the angel spoke those words to Mary, it meant that at long last God was going to act on Israel's behalf. And when Mary burst into song, she sang about a world set right—the hungry being fed, captives set free, and God being praised. And months later, in the fullness of time, Christ came.

This Christmas let's remember how he came—born in a stable, to a refugee couple living in occupied land. Talk about flying under the radar. The only ones aware of his arrival, aside from his parents, were a handful of shepherds. Talk about a stealth campaign. For 30 years no one knew he was here. Talk about overturning the established order. Some of the first words out of his mouth were, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Talk about a conspiracy. He spent most of his three years telling people to keep it quiet; not to tell anyone who he was. And talk about a grassroots movement. He left the whole thing in the hands of a hundred some followers—fisherman, tax collectors, women—and told them to take his message to the streets. Within a generation, they had turned the world upside down in Jesus' name.

And this year we want to join the Conspiracy: Christ-followers all over the world reclaiming the subversive power of Christmas; allowing it to change the world, and to change us. It's not about skipping Christmas. It's about showing the world a better way to do Christmas—spending less on stuff, giving more of ourselves, worshiping with our whole hearts, and showing his love to the whole world, especially the overlooked and the needy.

Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Oppressed and captive people

II. Modern oppression and captivity

III. Taking notice of the oppressed

IV. Spend less to help others

V. An upside down world