Advent Conspiracy: Spend Less – Dan Teefey
Sermon text: John 10:1-10
I think we are lied to consistently. We have thieves and robbers that are lying to us about what is important and essential in our lives and that we are being deceived into buying things that we do not need with money that we either do not have or could be better used elsewhere.
We are being sold a very simple message by our culture . . . I want to show you some of what I mean. Show Pics. 1) competition. 2) happing shopping (4).
This . . . will give you life.
A marketing expert on a blog I read this week said this, “As early as two-years old a child can sit in a shopping cart and point to what they want. Companies need to capture that child as early as possible to get a sale today and retain that customer for the future.”
According to the 2001 marketing industry book Kidfluence, the very effective marketing strategy of pestering or nagging can be divided into two categories—"persistence" and "importance." Persistence nagging (a plea, that is repeated over and over again) is not as effective as the more sophisticated "importance nagging." This latter method appeals to parents' desire to provide the best for their children, and plays on any guilt they may have about not having enough time for their kids.
Even schools have gradually allowed marketing to creep in . . . in exchange for free things. Pepsi or Coke scoreboards. Book covers from Lays Potato Chips. Educational posters in the hallways from all sorts of companies like Skittles, Starburst. Pizza Hut reading program. When I was a kid we had Book It . . . and I am sure that the folks at Pizza Hut love reading and everything . . . but the reality is they are in the business of selling pizza and they know if they can introduce kids to their product young . . . they might stick around for life.
On Thursday I had lunch at McAllister’s Deli in Lafayette. In McAllister’s in the center of the restaurant they have these giant television screens that continuously run pictures of their various food items. I thought to myself . . . I am here, I have paid, I am enjoying my food, why are they still trying to sell me? It’s because they want me back. They keep marketing to me so that I might see something else I desire . . . if they are lucky I will immediately stuff myself with more food . . . at the very least they want me coming back again and again.
Miller Beer is probably the most overt example of conveying a false message. They advertise as Miller High Life. “The High Life is yours for the living.” And it comes through beer. Nice!
In Richard Foster’s Book, the Freedom of Simplicity, he says,
“When taken as a whole, the media commercials constitute a worldview, a rival religious philosophy about what constitutes blessedness. We are told by television that the most idiotic things will make us insanely happy. . . The purpose of all this media bombardment is to increase desire. The plan is to change “that's extravagant” into “that would be nice to have,” and then into “I really need that,” and finally into “I've got to have that!”
“We are taken in, duped, brainwashed. But it is done in such subtle ways that we do not realize what has happened. We think we are wise because we can easily see through the childish logic of the commercials. But the ad writer never intended us to believe those silly commercials, only to desire the products they advertise. And sure enough we buy, because the commercials accomplish their goal of inflaming our desire.”
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” The focus of our passage in John this morning is on understanding Jesus alone as our Savior. And Jesus is contrasted with the “thieves and robbers” and “strangers” that threaten us.
Now this might sound kind of strong to call our culture of marketing a thief and robber. But I really believe that our culture of consumption is stealing us from focusing on the values of Jesus. I have experienced it. I have scoured the internet for hours researching the perfect cell phone for the best price. I have seen commercials for enormous HD televisions and fancy new computers and wanted them.
The point is not to say that these things are inherently evil . . . but to ask godly questions about our motivations for buying them and ask whether we are not truly dying from what one author calls, “affluenza.”
Read John 10:1-10
The immediate context of the passage is Jesus' criticism of “the Jews” spiritual leadership and of their inability and unwillingness to understand him. In biblical times, Jesus had arrived as the Son of God to share God's will. The Jewish leaders, though, had their own impressions of how things ought to go and were attempting to lead people in their own direction. At the end of chapter 10, the Jewish leaders even try to stone Jesus, but he escapes. We are not talking a mild disagreement here, we are seeing that Jesus came and sought to completely change their understanding of reality and they did not like it.
Jesus uses an illustration to make clear what he is saying. There is one way into the pen to be amongst those that are on God's side. Verses 1-2 say, “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep.”
Now Jesus' language here can be a little unclear at first, because Jesus refers to himself as both the gate through which people must pass to enter into God's favor, but then also as the “good shepherd” who enters through the gate. To really understand what he is saying then we just have to take the passage step by step.
He begins then in these early verses by contrasting his leadership which comes to the people the right way, “by the gate”, versus the leadership of others . . . in this case the Jewish leaders, who come to the people the wrong way, they break in . . . Jesus says they are “thieves and robbers.”
In the law, trespassing is entering onto the land of another person without their permission or without some other right to be there. Jesus enters the land rightfully and legally and can thus just use the gate . . . there needs to be no hiding that he is coming and what he will be doing. The “thief and robber”, however, has not right to be there . . . and must “climb in by some other way.”
If we imagine ourselves to be God's people in Jesus' illustration, it is important for us to realize that there are thieves and robbers that are sneaking in amongst us to lure us away. I firmly believe that there are lots of thieves and robbers in our culture that are trying to entice us with all sorts of gimmicks. Our culture of consumption is just one of them.
Look at verse 3 closely because it is one of the keys to understanding how we know the difference between the “shepherd” and the “thieves and robbers.” It says, “The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
How do we know the truth from the lies in our culture? Jesus gives very simple advice. The sheep, “listen to his voice.” And when they are listening they will know the shepherd who loves them from the thieves that could care less about them . . . because the shepherd will call “his own sheep by name and lead them out.”
Here the analogy of the sheep and the shepherd is very helpful. Shepherds have an unbelievable relationship with their sheep. Sheep were like valued pets. There was nothing about their sheep that good shepherds did not know. Although the individual sheep in a flock all looked alike to the untrained eye, a good shepherd could tell them apart – often because of their specific markings or peculiar traits. A shepherd would say, “see that sheep over there? Notice how its feet toe in a little. The one behind it walks kind of sideways; the next one has a patch of wool off its back, there’s one with a black mark below its eye, while the one closest to us has a small piece torn out of its ear. The shepherd knows each by name. These were not just sheep; they were Patch, Limpy, Blackie, Tag, Nosey, and so on. By day and night the shepherd lived with them. He had to be close to them.
The “thieves and robbers” will call you by all sorts of things and they do. They call you consumer. They call you single, white, female. Or divorced lady on food stamps. Or depressed man that never smiles. Or all sorts of things that may describe characteristics about you, professor, manager, boss, janitor . . . but you are not those things. The shepherd, Jesus, God calls us by our name. Who we really are. Beloved. Cared for. His image. Son and daughter.
In the bible, to call someone by their name is not just to call them what their parents labeled them. In biblical thought, a name does not merely identify; it expresses the essential nature of its bearer. To know and call someone by their name was to truly know them. In Hebrew thought, the very essence of a thing is concentrated in its name. Hence, creation was not complete until Adam had named all the creatures. To cut off a person's name is to end his existence.
Think about the difference between a stranger reading your name tag and calling you by your name and your best friend calling your name as they see you across the room. We feel different towards our best friend because we know that our name means something to them. They truly know us.
When I was in college most of my jobs were in politics. And one of the more common jobs that I had was that I would be paired with a candidate for office, usually a state representative and the two of us would spend day after day going door to door talking with voters. As you can imagine I have some pretty crazy stories from those adventures being chased by dogs and people. But there is one story that has always stuck with me.
We always had neighborhood sheets. And on those sheets were addresses and the families names and their party affiliation. And so I would go up to a house, the candidate and I would usually alternate houses, and I would address the person that answered the door by name. Well one day, a guy just laid into me and repeatedly yelled at me, you do not know me. You may know my name, but you do not know me . . . and repeated it over and over. He calmed down a little after I told him I was not selling anything and just wanted to leave him some information and see if he had any questions, but the message was the same.
Thieves and robbers will know something about us . . . that is what makes them dangerous. It may even seem like a lot. Maybe even more than we know about ourselves . . . but it is very different than the way that God says that we are known.
Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.”
Psalm 139:1-4, “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.”
Luke 12:7, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”
Verses 4-6, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice." Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.”
Jesus goes on to explain how the true people of God will respond to Jesus, the good shepherd. As Jesus knows their name . . . the people of God will recognize God's voice. Revelation 3:20, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”
I read one time and have heard others discuss it, that those in our country that regularly examine our money for counterfeits aren't trained by having them know all of the different counterfeits out there . . . they are trained by having them study over and over again the real thing. And the more thoroughly they understand and can recognize an original the more obvious the counterfeits become.
The reality is that the counterfeits are always changing. And the ways that our culture seeks to distract us and draw us away from what it true are always changing too. But the point is clear enough. The more that we focus on the real thing, the original, the more effectively we will recognize the fakes. Your best defense against untruth, lies and the robbers that desire to mislead our faith lives is to know Jesus well. To study God's revelation to us, to surround ourselves with faithful believers and to seek to draw closer and closer to God through relationship.
Verse 6 ends with Jesus' hearers not understanding his point, so he says it another way. “Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Jesus is again explaining how you tell the difference between someone you can trust and someone you can't. In this section Jesus says it is really quite simple. I am the gate, if you go through me, if you know and trust me, then you will be saved, you will be protected and cared for. But the thieves do not come to care for you . . . they come to steal, to kill and to destroy. Then Jesus ends our passage with “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
So what do we do? We cannot hope to deal seriously with our rush to spend until we honestly assess what we spend. If someone were to ask you how much you spent on entertainment or clothes or gifts, could you tell them . . . not in some round figure, but exactly? If not you need to know where your money goes.
There is absolutely no way we can really control our spending if we don’t know where our money is going. Just in case you feel like this is unnecessary work for you because you don’t have much money . . . if your family’s annual income is $30,000 and you earn that for 40 years without a single increase you will have earned and spent $1.2 million. We are responsible for that money. We should know what we are doing with it.
So after we learn what we are spending, we should establish a budget. A budget is nothing more than a representation of our decision about where we want our money to go. It is important to realize that our wants will always exceed both our needs and our funds. If our own egocentric greed does not ensure that, then advertising will. Budgeting is not just for people that struggle financially. It is for them too, but it is important for anyone that truly wants to be responsible with what God has given them.
The marketers in our culture are working day and night to squeeze us into their mold. They have launched a concerted effort to capture our minds, and the minds of our children. Christianity simply demands that we break free of what Foster calls “thingification.”
He suggests some things we can do.
1) Revolt against the modern propaganda machine . . . identify attempts by commercials to identify status and prestige with their product.
2) Experiment. When you decide that it is right for you to purchase a particular item, see if God will not bring it to you without your having to buy it. . . . This approach effectively eliminates all impulse buying.
3) Stress the quality of life above the quantity of life. Refuse to be seduced into defining life in terms of having rather than being. . . . Develop close friendships and enjoy long evenings of serious and hilarious conversation. . . . Learn the wonderful truth that to increase the quality of life means to decrease material desire, not vice versa.
4) Learn to eat sensibly and sensitively. . . . Eat out less and when you do, make it a celebration.
5) Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status. . . . To acquire an unneeded item at a ridiculously low price is no bargain.”
Let me conclude by saying simplicity does not necessarily mean cheapness. Simplicity just resonates more easily with concerns for durability, usability, and beauty.
One more practical thing you can do in the next 3 weeks. Buy one less gift for Christmas this year. Make one or cut back, or spend time with that person instead. But just buy one less thing this year. And you will be taking a small, but first step in experiencing freedom. Give presence, not just presents.
Final Prayer from Education for Justice (http://www.educationforjustice.org/node/1168)
Slow us down, O Lord, this Advent,
So we may understand the darkness we are in,
The darkness of fear that comes with wanting more,
And the fear of having less.
Grant us the light of transformation,
As we wait for your true abundance.
The love of the Incarnation,
A love that brings us true dignity and security,
A love that embraces all, that enriches all,
That calls us all to share justly and celebrate joyfully.
Dawn, Marva J. Unfettered Hope. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press (2003).
Foster, Richard J. Freedom of Simplicity. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins (2005).
Ridderbos, Herman. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company