That’s what the door at Best Buy said as I walked in. Big letters announced on the doors that the goal, the task, that year was to win Christmas.
It speaks to what often feels like the task of the season, even though we don’t want it to be: materialism. Get more stuff. Make sure everyone on your list is accounted for. And hope that, under the tree, you get what you’ve been wanting. If you can make everyone happy with your gifts and get what you’ve been wanting, then you win Christmas.
And Best Buy has all the right gifts to make and keep everyone on your list happy. Buy all the shiny new electronics and gadgets and computers and phones and smart watches and the like. Win Christmas.
The more I thought about Best Buy’s slogan, the more I realized that I did, actually, want to win Christmas. I wanted to be the one that bought the coolest gifts, the one that created the best reactions, that met the desires of the recipient. Winning Christmas should be a priority, perhaps. It’s others-focused, after all, to want them to be the happiest I can make them by buying the best gifts.
Because getting shiny, new, stuff, is the way to happiness, the way to peace, the way to contentment. The excitement of the new thing releases anxiety. We stop worrying because now we have the new thing that will make our life better.
So buy everyone new things that will make them happy. Maybe not electronics but clothes or hunting gear or some other new thing that they really want. That way, we will all win Christmas.
Let’s read together our scripture for this morning: Matthew 6:22-25.
Shiny new electronics do appeal to me. I’m sure that comes as no surprise to anyone. It’s easy to start to think that my electronics are getting old and should be replaced. In fact, stores have learned a polite way to say that your stuff is old.
Several years ago, my desktop in my office started giving me a little trouble. I couldn’t fix it, so I took it to the store. I had them run diagnostics. Word came back: the computer is vintage: their polite word for old. So old, in fact, that you cannot get parts. So they offered me $500 to buy a new one.
Therein lies the temptation of the shiny new electronic. The current one is vintage, old, and has problems. It’s probably time to replace it, just in case it dies. Diagnostics revealed that its only problem was dead speakers. A simple $50 bluetooth speaker would fix that. But, to give me peace of mind, maybe I should spend the $1000 instead and buy a new computer.
That’s the temptation about our material goods. To give me peace of mind, or to satisfy my craving, or to fulfill my desire, I’ll go ahead and get the new thing. That way, I’ll be at peace. The craving, the desire, the longing will go away because I’ll have the new thing! Or in the case of the computer, the anxiety over my computer suddenly dying will go away and I’ll have the confidence that comes with a new computer that won’t die so easily. Buying new stuff, getting new stuff, seems to relieve our anxiety. Getting new stuff is fun! Fun for the recipient, and fun sometimes for the giver.
So, our homes, offices, and cars are full of stuff. Because stuff is cool. Stuff brings joy. Stuff relieves anxiety and worry. Stuff creates peace.
We keep buying stuff, we keep acquiring stuff. Sometimes just because we want it and sometimes because we’re sold on the idea that we need it. Steve Jobs was famous for this. Before the release of the first iPhone, a reporter questioned Jobs as to whether or not there was really a need for the iPhone. Jobs remarked: “I don’t respond to what consumers want. I create things that consumers have never thought of and then make them realize they can’t live without it.”
Materialism works that way. It convinces us that we can’t live without whatever the item happens to be.
So often it’s the case that we get what we want because we think it will make us happy, or we think we deserve it, or we think we’ve earned it. Dave Ramsey points out that we are experts at rationalizing our way into buying the things we want. And if we don’t have the cash on hand, stores and dealerships and the like are only too happy to open up a line of credit so we can get it today. Then, as our monthly payments pile up, we work so we can pay for the stuff we bought so that, when it’s paid off, we can go and buy more stuff. And on and on the cycle goes, with the monthly payments hitting our budget in a relentless cycle.
Such a cycle puts us in service to our money. Now we work so we can make the monthly payments. Now we strive for more income so we can buy more stuff. We serve our wealth. But the scripture very clearly says that we cannot serve God and money at the same time. Jesus then goes further to say that we shouldn’t be anxious about anything, for God provides for all needs. That stands in direct contrast to making sure we have enough money so we can provide for all our needs.
This scripture would seem to stand opposed to our shopping habits, to our debts, to our desire to win Christmas. And yet, our consumer behavior doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, economists say that growth in consumer activity is propping up the economy right now while other sectors of economic activity either decline or stall. So what are we to think?
Consider this: social scientists often say that capitalism is the single greatest thing that ever happened to worldwide poverty. No one can doubt that capitalism, compared with its communist contemporary or compared with its mercantilist forebear, has done significant good for alleviating much poverty across the globe through its emphasis on growth by infusing capital back into its own systems; growth that creates jobs that tend to pay a livable wage.
Then, those who become very wealthy through capitalism tend to give back. Think of all the university buildings at campuses across the country that bear the names of wealthy donors; people who gave back. I went to the Candler School of Theology, for example. It’s named for Bishop Warren Candler of the Methodist Church, but his brother gave the money for it; his brother, Asa Griggs Candler, the President of Coca-Cola who made Coke into the unofficial national drink.
There are many more stories like this that we could point to. Around here, many might point to Mr. Stuckey as our version of an Asa Griggs Candler. Certainly, the Stuckey name shows up all over this church and stories about his generosity remain, even though that was several decades ago.
Jesus says you can’t serve both God and money. But here, we see examples where it seems as though people did serve both God and money.
And when it comes to the stuff we want, as we earn more money so we can spend it on more stuff that we want, what harm does that bring? How is that a bad practice? That stuff makes us happy. We have the money for it or, at least, we have the credit score to take on the debt to get it. But as long as there’s a financial plan, what’s the problem?
Jesus gives us the answer; an answer that’s in the eye of the beholder. In verse 22, Jesus talks about what happens if the eye is healthy: it lets light in and sets its sights on the things of God. An unhealthy eye does just the opposite, setting its sights on darkness and evil. This seems pretty straight forward until we look more closely at the word healthy.
The word Jesus uses for healthy in the greek can be translated as singular, meaning singular in focus. The eye that is singular in focus is healthy because it sees light and sets its sight on the things of God. This is an eye with only one master: the light, God, and whatever it sees, it seeks to serve as God would serve.
The answer is in the eye of the beholder. The one who beholds only Christ, whose singular focus in life is service to him, has the healthy eye and does not seek to serve two masters.
We have a healthy eye, we have singular focus on Christ, when we ask ourselves how our money, how our expenditures, are helping further God’s work on earth. When we want to buy something, when we want to replace something, when we want to take out another credit account, when we want to save money, when we want the shiny new electronic, when we want the bigger house, when we want the car or clothes or whatever, is our spending or saving in service of God?
Does our spending cause justice, promote mercy, or encourage humility, as Micah might ask us. When we are thinking about how to use our discretionary income, do our financial actions demonstrate first of all our love of God and secondly our love of our neighbors, as Jesus and the Torah would put it? If the answer to either test is no, the reality, then, is clear: we’re attempting to serve two masters. Our actions are of an unhealthy eye, not in service of God, for we are trying to serve our wealth while simultaneously trying to serve God.
That’s what’s sneaky about winning Christmas. It’s a subtle lie. It says that material goods, whatever they may be, can provide what, in fact, only God can provide: peace, release from anxiety and worry, true happiness. Winning Christmas tells us that life is, in fact, nothing more than food and clothing.
But Christ tells us no, asking us all rhetorically this morning, “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
Jesus here says to us, as all generations have needed to hear: there’s much more to life than stuff. There’s much more to be made in life than money. There’s a grander, more wonderful, way to live our lives, and it has nothing to do with shiny new stuff.
Stuff in and of itself isn’t bad. Buying new things isn’t bad. Purchasing homes and cars isn’t bad. Saving money isn’t bad. Buying gifts for people because we love them and want to demonstrate our love by being thoughtful with our gift giving this Christmas isn’t bad at all.
What is bad is when the stuff, whether what we own or the quest for more stuff, becomes the focus of our hearts and minds. When we seek to get more income so we can buy more stuff, we’re in service of wealth. When we’re constantly thinking about the new thing we want and how to get it, we’re in service of wealth. When we’re trying to use stuff to make us happy or less anxious, we’re in service of wealth. When we try to win Christmas through giving gifts of stuff, we’re in service of wealth.
We should not be in the service of wealth. Rather, our wealth should be in the service of Christ.
Keeping our focus on Christ, then, is the trick. How do we keep our eye healthy, always focused on the light? There are multiple spiritual disciplines that can get us there, but this morning, let me suggest two.
First, generosity. Choosing to give our money away to various causes that support the love of God and neighbor reminds us that it’s not our money to begin with. God has given us the money, God has given us the means, and we’re called by God to give back, to put that money to work in the service of the Kingdom of God. Seeing the money go out of our checking account and into our church, charities, causes we believe in, and the like is a great monthly reminder of our obligations to each other and to God. It also directs the focus of our eyes singularly to God by reminding us that what we have is a gift from God.
Second, fasting; particularly fasting from shopping and buying. Taking a break from being a consumer is a big way we can redirect ourselves toward service of Christ. Try only buying the essentials for a week, only purchasing food to cook at home, gas in your car, and the like. When you want to go shopping for the nonessentials, when you feel the desire to eat out, turn to God in prayer. That’s how to fast; and that kind of fasting usually teaches us a powerful lesson: that we don’t need as much as we think we need. Then, with the money we have freed up because we haven’t bought the things that we thought we needed, we can be more generous or pay down our debt faster to free up that income. That redirection of our spirit from the stuff we want to God retrains us to see the world through the eyes of God, rather than through our desire for stuff. It moves us from service of wealth to service of God.
And as we approach Christmas, as we feel that desire to win Christmas, put out an item that reminds you of the reason for the season. Something that, when you and your family see it, you are reminded that the goal of Christmas is not to win but, rather, to celebrate that hope has come into the world through Christ. This item, whatever it is, is your Ebenezer. In scripture, an Ebenezer literally means a “stone of hope.” It’s a symbol that reminded the people, whenever they saw it, of the hope they had in God. The item you and your family choose, placing it in a prominent place in your home, will remind you that you have hope, and that such hope matters far more than stuff.
Then, let us encourage each other this season by sharing your Ebenezer on social media. Talk about how it gives you hope and reminds you of the reason for the season. As we see each other’s Ebenezers, we will support each other in choosing Christ over stuff this Christmas.
Stuff can’t make us happy and free us from worry; only God can. We, indeed, have no reason to worry, just as Jesus said, because Christ is Immanuel, God with us. There’s no need to win Christmas. God won Christmas a long time ago when he, himself, came into the world.
As we approach this Christmas season, don’t be lured to win Christmas. Resist the temptation to succumb to materialism. Instead, fast, be generous, and above all, raise your Ebenezer.
For isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.