When I was in college I volunteered with our campus alternative gifts fair. If you’ve never been to one of these before, the idea is that instead of giving another tie, or pair of holiday socks to a family member who doesn’t really need it, you can make a donation in their name to an organization or a cause they believe in. The insert in today’s bulletin shows some examples of the “alternative gifts” available through Church World Service, but lots of charitable organizations have this donation option—the Heifer project, Oxfam, and many many others.
Most of the people coming through the fair were college students, professors, and adults from the community looking for thoughtful, meaningful gifts for parents and adult fr
iends who did not need another generic Christmas gift. But one group of shoppers caught my attention.
It was a family with four kids. The oldest son looked like he was maybe 11 or 12, and the youngest looked like she was about 4. And rather than getting gifts for other people, these kids were picking out their own Christmas presents—they each had about $15 to spend, and they seemed to know that rather than getting one extra toy at Christmas, they were picking out a gift for someone else who really needed it, but they got the pleasure of choosing something they would remember and be proud of giving.
One of the kids bought glasses for students in China. One of them was impressed by a project to build a playground for school kids in Gaza, and contributed to that project. One bought chicks for a family to raise so they would have eggs to eat. And the last child helped buy a goat so a family would have milk to drink.
I remember thinking how much I wanted to cultivate that same spirit of giving in my own kids. And this year, for the first time, I’m going to bring Susanna along with me when we buy our gifts for Foothills, so that she can help choose what toy to get for the 5 year-old girl whose gift tag we got. I’m not sure how it will go—I already know that walking through a store with an almost-four-year-old is an exercise in saying “no.” How will she respond to the idea of getting a gift for a stranger, but not getting what she wants for herself?
I think it will be a challenge, but I think it’s exactly the kind of challenge that can remind us, and teach our children, what it means to follow Jesus. After all, following Jesus does mean living differently from the culture around us, and that is always a challenge.
Making sense of today’s scripture is a bit of a challenge, too. What are we doing on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, reading a passage that seems better suited to Good Friday? While Christmas songs play on the radio, and masses of shoppers have already made a big dent in their Christmas lists with the Black Friday deals, what are we doing reading about Jesus and Pilate debating whether or not Jesus is a king?
In the church calendar, today is Christ the King day—the last Sunday of the year, because Advent is the beginning of a new church year. So, on the most basic level, that’s why the lectionary gives us a passage that talks about Jesus as king—because today is the day of the year that we’re supposed to talk about that.
But why? Why is there a Christ the King, or Reign of Christ day? Why do we need to remember that Jesus is King, and what about this snippet from Jesus’ trial in front of Pilate helps us remember that?
Talking about Jesus as “King” feels a little weird in 21st century North America. The whole idea of Kings has kind of passed its peak. Very few nations in the world have kings or queens with any kind of real political power, and we, the trailblazers of modern democracy, believe that’s a pretty good thing. So, how do we translate this language of Christ the King into terms that mean something to us?
Well, when the early church spoke about Jesus as their King, they were using King as a metaphor. They knew that Jesus was not establishing a new political entity. They knew that he was not overthrowing the Roman Empire with armies and weapons.
No, by the time these gospels were being written, the language of the Kingdom of God and King and Messiah had been disassociated from literal political victory over enemies. Instead, as Marcus Borg puts it, “the kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not.”
Saying Jesus was their king was a metaphor for how Jesus presented a new way of living—a way of living with confidence that God’s purpose for the world, God’s desires for the world are more true, more real, more enduring than anything else. That, no matter how unjust or broken the world seems, God is holding it together, working toward justice and wholeness. It was a way of talking about the real-life changes—the change in priorities and values, behavior and world-view that grew out of this belief that God’s reality is the most real—the most enduring part of the world.
If king and kingdom language feel strange to us, now, maybe we can think in terms of Jesus as author, or story-teller. That no matter how this world tries to define us and shape our life-stories, Jesus is the one who is really telling our story. When the world around us tries to define us as consumers, Jesus can help us remember what it means to be loved so deeply that we can’t help but share the love. When the media sends us the message that our primary purpose is to contribute to the economy—to be productive and successful and financially secure, Jesus tells a different story—one in which our purpose is to love God, and our value is innate—that no matter whether we are overworked or underemployed, God loves us and calls us to love and serve our neighbors and the world.
We usually think of Christmas as the season when we tell Jesus’ story, but maybe this year we should rethink that—maybe, as we turn our attention to the child in the manger, this can be a season when we let Jesus tell our story.
The holidays can be a time when we forget who we are. We get so caught up in trying to live the pretty Christmas card version of our lives that we can lose focus. Maybe we disappoint ourselves when our house doesn’t look like the ones in the magazines. Maybe we succeed in setting out the perfect spread of food for a party, but get so frazzled in the process that we have trouble enjoying the company. Maybe family gatherings are just stressful, and painful, and it hurts all the more because we know that the holidays are supposed to be about enjoying quality family time.
Well, guess what? That’s the wrong story. Let Jesus tell your story this Christmas. Look at your life through Jesus’ eyes and let him reframe things for you. I can’t tell you what your story will look like, but there are some plot points that Jesus really likes to include in everyone’s life story:
–You matter. God made you special, and God loves you just the way you are.
–you are not perfect, and you never will be, and that does not change how much God loves you and it does not change the fact that you have something important to contribute to the world.
–you have something to give, and it is not presents under the tree. Just as the first Christmas was marked by Jesus himself as a gift, the best gift you have to offer is You.
Let that story—Jesus’ version of your life—shape your holiday season this year. There is a movement started by a few pastors a few years ago—it’s called the Advent Conspiracy, and it has 4 practices that can help turn your Christmas upside down in the best, most Jesus-like way.
They suggest that we spend the holiday season worshipping more, spending less, giving more and loving all.
By Worship More, they don’t mean attend church more often—they mean focus more intently on God, and allow God to shape our lives and priorities more deeply. When we do this, we discover that God’s love is more than enough—we don’t need to spend money to secure love from our loved ones. We find that we can spend less, and still give more—more of ourselves, more of our time, more of our creativity, more of our love. And finally, we can accept the challenge to love as Jesus loved—to love the outcast and the broken, the poor and poor in the spirit. Maybe we will express that love like that family that gave their children the gift of giving to those in need. Maybe we will give the money we didn’t spend on presents to a worthy cause. Maybe we will go caroling to the homes of shut-ins. Who knows?
But when we know that Jesus is the author of our lives, and that his version of our story is one that we can start living right now, things change.