From a sermon I gave on December 19, 2010. Bethel CRC is participating in the Advent Conspiracy – this sermon is part of our participation in this wonderful initiative.
It’s not surprising that worship is a central theme in our Bible reading for today – we are talking about the birth of the long awaited Messiah. Indeed, worship is something that we see throughout the Bible and it is something that we, as Christians, take very seriously, particularly during the special celebrations of the Christian calendar, Easter and Christmas. We go to great lengths in our churches and homes to honour these holidays – from pageants and presents to family feasts, we want to enjoy and celebrate them to the fullest extent. And why wouldn’t we? We have a reason to celebrate! Plus, who doesn’t enjoy a good party with delicious food and drinks? The Bible makes it pretty clear that when Jesus returns, we will be feasting for eternity! So, when we celebrate Easter and Christmas, we get a foretaste of this everlasting heavenly party. Can I get an “amen” to that?
Eating and drinking will certainly be an element of this party as we enjoy the goodness of God’s creation. However, we cannot overlook the most fundamental aspect of this party – worship. Standing in the presence of our divine host, we will automatically worship God, for we will see God in all God’s glory. A pastor once remarked that churches have nothing to say to the world until we start throwing better parties. What he is getting at is that there is a fundamental connection between celebration and worship. How we worship paints a picture of who we worship. In other words, the way we worship tells a story about who we worship. Conversely, who we worship will shape how we worship.
If celebration is an important part of worship, then how we celebrate is directly related to how we worship. This means that there is a significant connection between how we celebrate Christmas and how we worship during the Christmas season.
Typically when we think of worship, we think of church on Sunday morning. So, I want to do an imagination exercise with you this morning to help paint a picture of worship. Please close your eyes while I describe to you the world’s most popular church.
It is a very popular church, as is evidenced by all the cars parked around it. It is so popular that it is open every day of the week – thousands of people visit it every day! In order to fit its many visitors, it is one of the largest buildings in town. You enter through the large glass atrium. Even if you’ve never been there before, you recognize familiar symbols and images. For newcomers, there is a station with people who serve as ushers. For those who are more timid, there is a map that clearly outlines the entire building. Those who faithfully attend this church know exactly where to go. Worshippers are invited to lose themselves in this space, to wander idly from place to place within the walls. As I’ve mentioned, the symbols and images in this church are easily recognizable to most people – each symbol has its own chapel into which you are invited in to search for what you’ve been seeking. When you find what you’re looking for, one of the pastors is ready to help with the transaction. You give the pastor your donation and in return you receive something wrapped in the symbol and colors of the chapel. You continue to explore the other chapels in the church. When you are finished your worship, you leave feeling really good about the experience and you are already looking forward to your next visit.
Open your eyes. Welcome to the Mall.
Malls are churches of the world’s fastest growing religion – consumerism. Consumerism is a religion that has billions of followers, including those who claim to be adherents of other religions, including Christianity. It is a religion whose sacred text is advertising and whose gospel is cheap prices for everyone.
In order to demonstrate the influence of consumerism in our lives, I’m going to lead you in a little exercise. I’m going to show you some slides. If you know what the slide is, don’t say anything, just raise your hand. (At this point, I showed a number of slides of logos from popular brands, pop-culture icons, ancient Christian symbols, and modern Christian heroes such as Oscar Romero, Dorthy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, etc. Not surprisingly, when it came to the brands and icons, nearly everyone could identity what was shown in the picture; not so much with the Christan symbols and heroes).
The point of this exercise is not to make you feel guilty or to suggest that shopping is automatically bad; it is to underline how consumerism so easily influences our imaginations. It is very easy to become focused on wearing brand name labels in order to fit in and buying the best products in order to stand out. We love our stuff and we can never seem to have enough of it. We always want better stuff, better than last year’s model, better than what our friends and neighbours have.
When we worship at the mall, we are being formed into a particular type of person – a consumer, one whose value is determined solely on the logos they wear, the products they buy, and, the amount of money they spend. We want to be the type of people who are known for the brands and labels we posses – we literally wear our identity on our sleeves and on the stuff we own.
Through this, we can see the formative nature of worship. Worship shapes our identity – who we are and who we want to be. It also shapes what we value. In other words, worship is rooted in desire. What we desire will shape how we worship. In fact, the Psalmist goes as far as to say that we become what we worship. Listen to these words from Psalm 135:
“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by human hands…Those who make them will be like them and so will all who trust in them”.
The best example I can think of to illustrate how what we desire shapes our identity is from the movie, Lord of the Rings. (At this point I player a clip with Gollum obsessing over the ring).
Gollum was consumed by the ring. It was what he desired most of all – his heart and mind were fixated on it. Gollum worshipped the ring. What we desire forms our worldview, shapes our imagination, and gives our lives direction. Our outward actions are shaped by our inward desires. Desire connects us to the world; worship is an expression of desire.
Consumerism is quick and ready to satisfy our desires – this is clear in the motto of Upper Canada Mall – “what you want”. We go to the mall searching to satisfy our desires, to find what we want. And yet, this is where the lie of consumerism is exposed – consumerism can never deliver on its promise to satisfy our desires. It needs to keep us always wanting more. It relies on its ability to capture our imaginations by continually offering new products and brands, suggesting that perhaps these will meet our desires, knowing full well that this is a temporary fix. Consumerism needs us to be constant pilgrims to the mall; it depends on us to worship at its churches. However, consumerism can never satisfy our desire, nor does it want to.
In the west, the celebration of Christmas has been hi-jacked by consumerism, an act in which many Christians have been all too willing to participate. Somewhere along the way Christians have allowed the consumerist version of the Christmas story to influence our imaginations. Our desires can be so easily swayed, especially when we are promised fulfilment. We learn to put a dollar value on everything, including human relationships. Michael Scott from the TV show “The Office” summarizes it best when he says “Presents are the best way to show someone how much you care. It is like this tangible thing that you can point to and say “Hey man, I love you this many dollars-worth.””
Consumerism loves Christmas – Christmas is its highest holy day! It is preceded by an entire month dedicated to shopping and is even followed by a few more days of shopping afterward – from Black Friday to Boxing Day, Christmas takes center stage not only in the malls, but also in our hearts and minds. This is precisely where confusion sets in, where our desires get misdirected. Of course we want to celebrate and give gifts – celebration and giving gifts are an important part of human relationships. The problem is when our celebration of Christmas is more shaped by consumerist worship and the story that it tells about Christmas. Consumerism celebrates Christmas because it points to presents and profits, to buying and receiving not because it points to the manger and the cross, to self-sacrificial giving. Worship in the mall never satisfies. It cannot and it will not. It stands in direct conflict with Christian worship. We cannot worship both ways.
So the question for Christians is this – does how we celebrate Christmas have more to do with the narrative of consumerism or with the narrative of the gospels? How do we worship at Christmas in such a way as to anticipate the drama of Easter rather than the excitement of the mall? What does worship that satisfies look like, especially at Christmas?
A good place to start is at the first Christmas, looking at the worship of the humans in the narrative of Luke 2 – the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna.
Shepherds during this time were despised. Because they worked with animals all day, they were dirty and smelly. No one would willingly associate with shepherds. They were so mistrusted that they were not permitted to give testimony in court. And yet, the first people who are told of Jesus’ birth are a group of shepherds and they are the first to spread the good news of his birth.
As a group of social rejects, the shepherds’ wanted to be accepted for who they were, to be respected and invited into mainstream society. Their deepest desire was to be loved unconditionally.
After their experience with the angels, they went to see what the angels had told them about. Immediately after seeing Jesus in the manger, they left to tell everyone they could about what they had seen. A baby in a manger seems to be a strange thing get excited about; however, the shepherds knew who this baby is. The shepherds were overcome with joy knowing that this baby was the promised Messiah. Their encounter with Jesus led them to worship, glorifying God with reckless abandon. In their hearts, they knew that this little baby would be someone who would satisfy their deepest desire to be loved unconditionally.
Simeon was a very pious man, known for his religious devotion. His deepest desire was to see the Messiah come in his lifetime. Upon meeting the baby Jesus, Simeon was immediately moved to worship – this baby that he was holding was his deepest desire, the Messiah who would save Jews and Gentiles alike. Simeon’s encounter with Jesus led him to worship, glorifying God for sending himself to redeem all people.
Anna was also very pious, so much so that she lived in the temple. Her deepest desire was to cultivate an intimate relationship with God. Like all devout Jews, she too was longing for the promised Messiah to come and fulfill the covenant. Upon meeting the baby Jesus, Anna was immediately moved to worship, giving thanks to God and telling all people that this baby was the promised Messiah.
The desires of the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna were satisfied when they encountered Jesus. The experience of meeting Jesus immediately moved them to worship and to tell everyone they could about it. They did not desire fame or glory – the shepherds wanted to be loved; Simeon wanted to see the Messiah; Anna wanted a deep relationship with God. Because their desires were properly oriented, they were fulfilled.
St. Augustine once said “our hearts are restless until they find rest in you, O Lord”. He meant that our deepest desires will only be satisfied when we encounter Christ. Whether we admit it or not, at root, every single person’s deepest desire is to have a relationship with God. Often, we try to fill this God-shaped hole with everything but God – with our money, possessions, power, and reputation. But these things will never completely satisfy us – they will always leave us empty and wanting more. When we desire the wrong things, our worship will always be misdirected. When we desire presents under the tree rather than the presence of God, we are worshipping the wrong thing. We are celebrating the Christmas of consumerism and not the Christmas that leads to the Cross.
Satisfying worship, whether at Christmas or any other time of the year, is not about songs or sermons. It is not about attending church services or following a liturgy. Satisfying worship is about orienting our hearts, our desires, to what matters most – our relationship with God. Satisfying worship arises out of desiring the same things that God desires – justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien and the outcast. God desires to restore the entire universe to its original goodness. Satisfying worship flows from meeting this God face-to-face, the God who so desperately loves us that he took on human flesh and became a helpless baby, who grew up to die on a cross so that we may be in a relationship with him.
The only worship that will satisfy our deepest desire is the worship of this God. Satisfaction of this desire only comes when we give ourselves wholly to God in worship, dedicating our entire lives to following him and joining him on his mission of reconciliation. We cannot become distracted with arguments about how to worship precisely because these arguments make worship into a consumer event where we try to meet the preferences of the worshippers. When we become focused on the how, on finding a way to meet these demands, the worshippers become the who of worship, and our imaginations remain captive to consumerism and our misdirected and self-focused desire will never be satisfied. God is very clear of what he thinks of our worship when it is self-directed – when you go home today, check out Amos 5:21-26.
However, though the worship of the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna, we see that worship that satisfies flows from their encounter with the baby in the manger, the God they desire who comes to them. When our desire is directed away from ourselves and toward God, we will always find what we are looking for because God will meet us in our worship. Remember, how we worship is a reflection of who we worship. So the question is this – what do our celebrations and worship look like during the year and during the Christmas season?
Advent is a time of longing – of hoping that our deepest desire will be met. What do you long for? What is your deepest desire? In a broken world, our desires get so easily messed up by evil and sin. They get misdirected and confused, often
falling for the false promises and worship that consumerism offers. Is shopping, spending money, and accumulating possessions what God truly desires? Is this the type of worship that best honours him? Is this how Christians should celebrate Christmas? Is this what Jesus died for?
Who or what is your deepest desire at Christmas? Is it the perfect present under the tree, the gift that you want more than anything else, something you just gotta have? Or is it the baby wrapped in rags, lying in a food trough, surrounded by stinky, noisy animals, dirty shepherds, the child of an unmarried couple, a baby who would grow up to die forsaken on a cross? How will you celebrate and worship this Christmas – with presents or in the presence of the Christ? In a world where consumerism seems to reign, Christians have a different story to tell – the same story told by the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna, the story of the baby in the manger, who is the Messiah, the Redeemer of the universe. Let us fix our hearts on him so that our Christmas celebrations and worship may be honoring to him because he is the one who satisfies our deepest desire. Amen.