Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ghost of Christmas Future

Here is my sermon from December 18. The text was Romans 16:25-27:

For the past two weeks we have been looking at Christmas through a lens provided for us by Charles Dickens in his classic story A Christmas Carol. (Does anyone know the Christmas carol that is actually used in the story? It’s God rest ye merry Gentlemen). In the story, Ebenezer Scrooge, who approaches Christmas, and really everything in his life by exclaiming famously “bah humbug”, is visited by four ghosts. The first is the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley, who is forced to carry the chains of his misdeeds in his life around with him for all of eternity. Marley comes to warn Scrooge that his fate will be the same unless Scrooge makes changes and that he should heed what the ghosts who come to visit have to show him.

The first ghost is the ghost of Christmas past who helps Scrooge to remember a different time in his life when he didn’t approach everything as simply an economic exercise in which to make, or save, as much money as possible and when he approached life with excitement and verve. He was also shown the process by which he had become the man he was so that he would understand what changes could be made so that he could become someone different and not face the same fate as Marley. It was important for him to understand that who he was was not who he had to be, that he was not locked in chains yet, that he could make other decisions in his life and change his future.

Two weeks ago we too looked with the ghost of Christmas past how we came to celebrate Christmas as we do. What we saw was that Christmas didn’t come to be celebrated until the 4th century, and that there has always been a battle between the religious celebrations of the day and the more secular, party aspects and most of our understandings of how Christmas is celebrated, including gift giving and tree decorating did not develop until the mid 1800s. That is, even though the traditions seem old to us, within the history of Christmas they are fairly new having been invented less than 200 years ago. This helped us to understand how we got to be where we are so we could understand that we too are not locked in the chains that sometimes seem to hold us down, that we can make changes to free ourselves. That led us last week to being visited by the ghost of Christmas present.

This ghost showed us the hyper-consumption and consumerism that affects how we celebrate Christmas today. We want Christmas to mean more for us and we worry that we have gotten caught up in everything else and have forgotten the reason for the season, the birth of Christ, but because we can’t quite figure out how to make our celebrations more meaningful we focus on trying to make society’s celebrations more Christian in order to compensate. And so to do this we begin focusing on things, which I believe, distract us and distance us from truly understanding what the birth of Christ means for the world.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ first sermon quotes from the prophet Isaiah, which we heard last week, in which he says “the spirit of the lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” If that is one of the messages which encapsulates what the good news of Jesus looks like and what the proclamation of the kingdom of God is about, which I believe it is, then how do we make that a part of our Christmas celebrations and proclamations? How do we celebrate Christmas as Christians knowing that in America alone we will spend an estimated 465.6 billion dollars on Christmas this year, and yet everyday more than 20,000 children around the world will die as a result of malnutrition, war and water-borne illnesses, problems which can be solved with a fraction of what we spend on Christmas every year? How do we make Christmas transformative and life-changing not just for us but for the world? These questions lead us to the final visit.

The ghost of Christmas future is the scariest of the ghosts which Scrooge encounters. Indeed, he says, “I fear you more than any specter I have seen.” The ghost of Christmas future is usually personified as the grim reaper who is there to show Scrooge his own death and people’s reactions to it. Certainly not an image that most of us want to spend any real time contemplating, especially at Christmas. Scrooge is filled with fear because he doesn’t know what to expect from this ghost, and at the same time he also does know what to expect, and in some ways that scares him even more.

Scrooge is really being forced to ask what the legacy is that he is leaving for those around him. Is the world going to be better off because he was in it or not? Of course he knows the answer is that few people will be upset to see his demise and that many will be glad to see him go. I think what the ghost of Christmas future calls to us is to answer what legacy we are leaving about what Christmas means to us, how we recognize the birth of Christ and how we live that out in the world?

After my Thanksgiving sermon two years ago, in which I talked about being grateful for what we actual had, not what we wanted to have, or those things that we believe would make us happy or complete if only we had them in our lives. After the service, a man named Steve came up and said that he had everything he could ever possibly need and wondered if there was some way the church could help him and his family to change their Christmas story and their expectations of the season so that the money that would normally be spent on gifts could instead be given to charities to help people who were truly in need. That simple request led me to begin looking around at what churches were doing and I found the Advent Conspiracy, which I used for the first time last year.

I know that not everyone who was exposed to it last year did anything with it, just as I know that not everyone here will do anything with it, but for those who did many of them told me that the experience was life changing. That being a part of the advent conspiracy, of rethinking Christmas, what they did, and how they did it changed their lives. Sadly enough it is the only time in my time in the church in which someone has told me they have been transformed by something the church did.

I would hope and pray that being in a relationship with Jesus Christ also changed their lives, but maybe this is the stepping stone to deepening that relationship and coming to understand the difference that the birth of Christ makes for us and for the world. That the incarnation, which is a big church word which means that God has been made flesh, that the incarnation matters as much for us 2000 years later as it did for those who may have been there on the night of his birth. That the angles still sing for us today and proclaim, “fear not” Scrooge was terrified of the future, but the angel says, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all the people for today in the city of David a child has been born” and his name is Emmanuel, God with us, God with you and with me.

Even though Steve was the one who got this started, he was not there last Christmas as the church began to conspire together to rethink Christmas because he had been diagnosed with intestinal cancer, and he was simply too sick from the disease and the chemotherapy to make it to church. But his simple idea changed our life and how we celebrate Christmas and it changed the lives of many others, and maybe will even change your life.

Now I suspect that some of Steve’s desire and need for Christmas to be something different to mean more to connect him to something more than just shopping and acquiring came from the fact that several years before he had lost his youngest daughter to suicide just before Christmas. He understood fundamentally that the most important things about Christmas are not the stuff that we buy each other but instead about our relationships, our relationships with each other and with Jesus Christ. Which takes us back to the first question that I asked two weeks ago, which is to think of your favorite Christmas memories, which I speculated had little to do with gifts we had given or received, but instead of time spent with family and friends.

The last funeral I did before moving here was for Steve, and during the time in which people were given the opportunity to make a remembrance, a man came up to the mic and said that no one there knew who he was, although Steve would have known, because Steve had been his doctor, and he had been the one to treat him when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer 15 years before, and he wanted to let everyone know that the only reason he was able to be standing there remembering Steve was because Steve had saved his life. The ghost of Christmas future asks Scrooge what difference he has made in people’s lives? Now obviously most of us cannot save someone’s lives when they get cancer, but we can still change people’s lives in fundamental ways. We can make a difference because Christmas makes a difference, how we celebrate makes a difference, and how we welcome the Christ child into our lives makes a difference.

Our Christmas traditions in many ways have not kept up with the reality of the world. I remember when I was growing up every year we would receive an orange in our stocking, and I could never really figure out why because it didn’t really make sense to me. But then when I was in my late teens or early twenties I finally understood why that was part of my parents traditions, because when they were growing up, as well as for many of you, you could not just go to the grocery store at any time of the year and have access to fruits and vegetables that were out of season. When they were growing up, oranges at Christmas were a special treat because they were not usually available. But when I was growing up that was no longer the case. You could find oranges in December just as easily as at any other time of the year. The tradition did not meet the reality.

At the time when gift giving at Christmas came into importance, people lived primarily in a culture of scarcity; gifts were very special. In addition, since the majority of people lived then in the isolation of rural America, the hustle and bustle of Christmas that arose with our traditions broke up the monotony of a down time in the agricultural cycle. It gave new excitement and meaning to the time. But our situations have radically changed from that. Most of us no longer live in scarcity, and even here in rural America we are still involved in the normal everyday hurry of society as a whole. Christmas is no longer the alternative to what our lives are normally like, but instead has become just an extension of it and sometimes even a hyper-extension of it. Because our situation has changed, what would make Christmas special, I believe, has also changed.

There is nothing wrong with gift giving or Christmas tree decorating or any of the other ways we celebrate Christmas as long as that celebration is working for us, but if it’s not working, if we want something more, or something less as the case may be, then change is possible. When we want Christmas to mean more, to be different, but we jeep doing the same things then nothing will change. What is the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Last week I said that in order to find the heart of our Christmas celebration and what it can be for us, that we should ask first what would be gained if we stopped celebrating Christmas? Then the opposite must also be answered, what would be lost if we stopped celebrating Christmas?

All traditions were invented at one time, and so they can all be stopped as well if they are no longer functioning the way they were supposed to. Our traditions should not be chains that bind us for all of eternity. We can create new traditions, new traditions which again capture the power of the Christmas story and message, new traditions which can again make a difference for us and for the world. Children have a sense of wonder, awe and magic at Christmas, a sense of excitement and expectation. While they want to rush and open all the presents, at the same time they also seem to understand that it takes a while to get there and they revel in that expectation and anticipation of something to come. We lose that as we grow up, but how do we reclaim that sense of wonder, awe and magic for this Christmas and for the Christmas’ yet to come, to create a legacy for Christmas futures that will make a difference?

Advent is the time for waiting and preparing for God to transform the world through the birth of Christ. But Christmas is not a noun, Christmas is a verb, it is about doing and being in the world. It is about God being in the world and it is about us being in the world. Some people won’t get what we are trying to do. They’ll ask why they can’t just get their present and move on. They won’t understand how we are trying to change what Christmas means for us. But we can’t wait to make changes based on others. If God had waited to give us Jesus until God knew that everyone would accept him, that everyone would understand what his birth meant, then we would still be waiting for him to be born.

Today’s writing from Paul is the closing to his theological masterpiece of Romans. It is his doxology, or song of praise and acclamation. Today is also our doxology to the Advent season, and we remember Mary’s joyful response when she breaks into song in thanksgiving in what is known as the magnificat, and she is filled with joy. We too should be filled with joy but not joy as it is typically understood. Joy is not like happiness. Happiness is dependent upon what is going on around us. But, joy sets the mood; it is not dependent upon other things. It’s like someone who asked whether hope and optimism where the same thing, and I said that they were not. Hope stands out even when optimism has been given up, in fact it is those times when hope is most necessary and important, the same as it is in times of despair when peace, love and joy, the other themes of advent are also most important.

God does not come into the world in the person of Christ because everything is great, nor does he come in spite of the fact that everything is in turmoil, but instead Christ comes because the world is broken, he comes because we need him in order to restore relationship with God. He comes as greatest present that God can give because we need him so much. So what will we do? What has Christmas meant to us in the past? What do we want it to be for us in the present? What do we want it to be for us and for others in the future?

Dickens closes his story by having Scrooge say, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the past, present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” Scrooge became filled with the Christmas spirit and lived it out in everything that he did. We too are filled with the spirit because “the spirit of the Lord is upon us because he has anointed us to bring the good news.”

Let us live out in our lives the true meaning of Christmas , let us make this year be the year that we make Christmas more meaningful, that we connect to the things that really matter, that we welcome the Christ child into our lives today and every day. How is Christmas changing you? What does Christ’s birth represent and mean to you? Is it just about giving and receiving gifts or is it about receiving the one and most important gift, about receiving Christ into our live?

“And it was always said of” Scrooge, Dickens says, “that he knew how to keep Christmas well…. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us every one!” May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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