A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Robert A. Chesnut
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Santa Fe, New Mexico
December 13, 2009
A question for the congregation: Do you think Christmas is more for children or for adults?
I think Christmas for children is wonderful. And I think it’s great for adults to relive that magical experience through children. We stodgy grownups sometimes forget or repress the child within us and Christmas can help us welcome that child back into our lives. The sugar plum ferries and the Christmas Eve anticipations can reawaken our sense of imagination and delight.
Christmas for adults, however, is another matter—maybe a kind of Christmas we’d really rather avoid. What do I mean? Well, the lessons assigned in the church’s lectionary for the Advent season to not give us very Christmasy stuff when you consider it.
Here’s John the Baptist—not much sugarcoating with that fellow. But John is front and center in the Advent readings for two Sundays. He’s a rough and ready guy who minces no words. I imagine he wouldn’t be very welcome at any of our Christmas parties or celebrations—probably not even in most churches. You surely well never find John in any Christmas display windows at Lord and Taylors or Macys. What a contrast between Santa Claus and John the Baptist.
Another question for you: What does John the Baptist have to do with this season anyway? Why do you think this quite difficult fellow has such a prominent role in our Advent readings?
Okay, yes, John’s role is to prepare the way of the Lord. And that’s the spiritual challenge we face in the Advent season—to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts and in our world. And John tells us in no uncertain terms what we need to do. Santa asks us what we want for Christmas. John tells us what God wants for Christmas.
But first, John warns his listeners:
“If you want to be ready to welcome the promised Messiah, you’ll have to make some radical changes in your lives. You’ll have to repent. You’ll have to reevaluate your priorities. You’ll have to stop dead in your tracks, turn your lives around and move in the opposite direction.”
So, understandably shaken, the people asked John to be more specific:
“What does repentance entail? What exactly do you want us to do?”
Then to everyone, John declared:
The person with two shirts and plenty to eat must share with those who have none.
And to tax collectors, he said:
Do not extort from the people more than they owe.
And to soldiers, he said:
Do not bully people or blackmail them. Be content with your wages.
So what does God want for Christmas? What is required to prepare the way of the coming of the Lord in our lives? John’s notion looks very much like this:
Be fair, honest, and compassionate. Treat one another fairly and kindly and generously.
Well, that’s how John the Baptist sees it. But how representative is John’s message of other voices involved in the scriptural drama of Advent/Christmas? Is John really on target regarding what God wants for Christmas? How about the angels? What message did they sing to the shepherds in the very first Christmas carol?
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all people.
What about Mary? How did the mother of our Lord respond when the angel told her she would give birth to the Christ? Her beautiful song of praise is the one we call the Magnificat. Here’s the heart of it:
My soul magnifies the Lord. My Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
The Mighty One has done great things for me.
God has scattered the proud . . . .
Put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.
God has filled the hungry with good things….
And sent the rich away empty.
Good grief! This is pretty radical stuff. Maybe we’d better check it out against what Jesus himself said about his mission. Here’s what he said about what God had sent him to do when he first began his ministry at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth:
The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberty for the oppressed.
All this challenging stuff is straight out of the Bible, my friends. In fact, everything we’ve just heard can be found in the first four chapters of Luke’s Gospel. Check it out when you get home. These are messages from God that anyone who claims to be a Bible-believing Christian ought to take dead seriously.
Do you know Tony Compolo? He’s an evangelical Christian author and speaker in much demand. I like what he said in a speech to the Southern Baptist Convention several years back. Referring to the Southern Baptists’ continuing vicious debates and divisions over the literal interpretation of scripture, Compolo courageously declared:
I don’t know why you spend so much time arguing about whether or not the Bible is without error in every detail. When all is said and done, you’re not going to take it seriously anyway concerning what it has to say about issues of war and peace or economic justice.
Whoa! Compolo is dead on in my view. There’s rough, tough stuff here in the Gospel message . . . and most of us—not just Southern Baptists—most of us would rather not hear it. When we listen carefully and take it seriously we realize that it’s not exactly dancing sugar plum fairies God is offering us at Christmas. When we look at what God wants, it is—truly— Christmas for adults.
Then again, Christ did first come to us as a child. And he did give special attention and extraordinary status to the role of children in the Kingdom of God. What do you suppose a Christmas for all the children of the world would look like to God?
According to UNICEF, 25,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.”
Twenty-five thousand children under the age of five dying every day! Imagine the attention this would get in the world media if it were the work of terrorists or serial killers. But the terrorism and the serial killing in this instance come from greed and indifference and war and horrendous gaps between the world’s richest and poorest.
One billion of the world’s two billion children live in poverty with incomes of less than one dollar per day. 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million with no access to safe water. Over 9 million children die before the age of five each year--1.4 million of them from lack of safe water and sanitation, 2.2 million because they were not immunized. 1.8 million die annually from diarrhea.
The richest 20 percent of the world’s population takes 75% of the world’s income while the poorest 40 percent get only 5% of global income. The world’s richest 7 individuals together possess more wealth than the Gross Domestic Product of the 41 most heavily indebted poor countries—567 million people.
Over 72 million children of primary school age in the developing world are not in school—57% of them girls. Less than one per cent of what the world spent each year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000—but it didn’t happen.
Feeling overwhelmed? Helpless? Hopeless? What’s the problem here? Why are things this way? Surely these horrendous facts must push us to critically examine America’s role in this—our national policies and priorities. Consider, for example, that the one million dollars that it costs to send just one American solider to Afghanistan for a year could build twenty schools there. But then we also need to consider our own personal, individual priorities. Think about this:
$8 billion is spent in the U.S. each year for cosmetics while $6 billion would provide basic education worldwide for all those now without it. $50 billion is spent annually on cigarettes in Europe while $9 billion a year could provide safe water and sanitation for everyone in the world who now lacks it. $12 billion a year is spent on perfumes in the U.S. and Europe while $13 billion would provide basic health and nutrition for all those in the world now without it.
Don’t you think that the tough messages from John the Baptist about preparing the way of the Lord—warnings to repent, to avoid the holy fire of divine wrath, to look out lest the refuse of lives be as trash that’s thrown out to be burned—don’t you think those messages are just as relevant, maybe more relevant in our own time than when John first spoke them?
Very understandably we may despair in the face of it all, despair of any significant political change that could take our nation and world toward a real turn around. But we mustn’t give up. We Presbyterian Christians are heirs of the Reformed tradition’s affirmation that God is sovereign over all of life—from the most private and personal to the most the public and political. We pray for God’s kingdom to come, so we must work for God’s kingdom to come. We must vote and advocate and protest. We must write and email and call our elected representatives on behalf of fair, humane and just policies and programs--especially those that serve the least of our brothers and sisters, like access to health care for all.
Even if we despair of political change, however, and I think we must not, we should examine our own individual lifestyles and priorities. How do we spend and share our own personal wealth, time and energy? Nothing stands in the way of each one of us starting at home to make our own witness, one-by-one, to the Christmas visions of peace and justice among people of good will, food for the hungry, support for the weak. We can determine to resist the consumer frenzy that Christmas has been twisted into. We can buy gifts from projects that help the poor to support themselves. We can spend most of our Christmas gift money not on buying presents for those who are so difficult to buy for because they already have everything, but in giving to causes and organizations that work for peace and justice and good will on earth.
I almost fell off my chair one Christmas season when I opened the business section of our local paper and found a piece headlined, “How Much Should I Give to Charity?” I was astonished to read the following: “Ask a financial planner how much you should give to charity and get ready for a shocker. The rule of thumb is 5 to 10 percent of your income…” Of course, the church has been saying this forever, but to see it in print as the standard advice of financial planners was heartening. The article noted that 2 percent was all that Americans on average give—and, sadly, that’s about the average for Presbyterians as well. But the writer went on to state that among charitable organizations and financial planners alike there is agreement that “donating less that 5 percent of one’s income is being stingy.”
It’s also revealing to know that people at the lower end of the income scale give twice the percentage of their income as do those at the upper end of the scale. In other words, the less you have, the more generous you are; the more you have the more stingy you are.
Well, maybe it’s easy to get lost in all the facts and figures we’ve heard this morning. Maybe it’s hard to remember that each one of those digits represents a human life just as precious to God as my own. And maybe it’s easy for preachers to get lost in platitudes and generalizations. But here are some specific, practical suggestions to consider for preparing the way of the Lord this season, for considering what God wants for Christmas. Feel free to jot them down:
- Read the first four chapters of Luke’s Gospel.
- Check out the website called “Global Issues.” You’ll get more information of the sort we were hearing this morning about global needs, poverty and income disparities.
- Check out the link to Chester’s blog in his email this week to read a touching
story of one local family’s heart-wrenching need (chesterscheetos.blogspot.com)
- If you haven’t yet made a gift to the angel tree, check with Trasie. It’s still possible to help some local family in need this Christmas.
- Check out the websites of organizations like Church World Service, Heifer
Project, Habitat for Humanity or UNICEF to see how you can make Christmas gifts in the names of family and friends—gifts that will do a world of good for those who need it most. And locally—don’t forget the mailing you got from the church about supporting the Interfaith Homeless Shelter here in Santa Fe.
- Before the end of the year, sit down and look again at what percentage of your
income you’re giving to causes and organizations that are working for peace
and justice and good will among all God’s children--God’s purpose in sending
Christ to our world in the first place. If you find you’re coming up on the stingy
side, resolve to start correcting that before another year is gone. And don’t forget
to do a time inventory as well—what percentage of your time is spent in volunteer
work? How does that compare to time spent in front of the TV? I must admit, this
is a tough one for me—especially during the football season. However, since both
my Oklahoma Sooners and my Pittsburgh Steelers have hit the skids…it’s a lot
easier to turn it off.
Finally, I want to conclude by saying that all these are reasons that my wife Jan and I are here at Westminster Church:
Because we see in this faith community an inclusive welcome and care for all God’s children.
Because the Gospel in all its fullness is proclaimed here—both the comfort and the challenge, both the tough and the tender, both the personal and the social dimensions of the message.
Because we experience here in word and deed a commitment to the peace and compassion and justice for all that is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So may we keep our focus on what God wants for Christmas. May we observe this holy season as one that is both for adults and for all God’s children all around the world.
That way we can sing, and we can help others to sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord has Come!”