Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11:

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” so begins the classic Andy Williams song. Last week as I began my message I asked you to reflect on your favorite Christmas memories. For many of us we can remember a time when Christmas was perhaps as Andy Williams said the most wonderful time. But I also was willing to guess that most of our favorite memories had nothing to do with gifts we have given or received. That instead they involved other things, like time spent with family. And yet, even though that is what we remember about most Christmas, every year most of us get sucked into the cycle of rushing and buying in order to prepare for Christmas. Even though we say we’re not going to do it this year, we end up doing it anyways.

Last year, on the Monday after Thanksgiving I was at the bank and the two people in line in front of me, were talking about how they spent Thanksgiving and how much they enjoyed it and the time spent with their families, and then one of them asked the other what the plans were for Christmas, and the woman said how much she dreaded the whole Christmas season. That Thanksgiving was such a better holiday for her because it was much more relaxed and there weren’t any great expectations, but she felt hurried for all of December and she just didn’t enjoy Christmas anymore.

The man agreed and gave a similar story of woe. I suspect that many of us can sympathize with that sentiment, and maybe we even feel the same way. That is certainly the feeling of some who make the claim that Christmas has become too commercial and that if only we could reclaim the way Christmas used to be that everything would be better again, would return to the true joy of the season and we would remember what Christmas is all about.

In Charles Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts. The first is the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley who warns Scrooge not only of the other ghosts that will be visiting him that night, but also that he needs to change his ways or he will end up like Marley, carrying chains for all of eternity. The first ghost that visits is the ghost of Christmas past, who takes Scrooge into the past, obviously enough, so that Scrooge can remember what has happened to make him who he is so that he can understand in order to be able to change.

Last week, we too looked into the ghost of Christmas past so that we can understand how we came to celebrate Christmas as we do today. You might remember that most of the things that we practice today, including gift giving and the decorating of Christmas trees for example, are fairly new ideas begun in the mid-1800s, and what we also found was that the lament about how Christmas is celebrated, and how Christ is being left out, is as old as the holiday itself, which even led to the celebration of Christmas being made illegal in England and America and different points in time. So much of what we know as the “traditions” of Christmas were invented fairly recently. While they are, for the most part, all we have ever known, they are new in the history of the celebration. With that information we move today into seeing the ghost of Christmas present. But before we begin to see what today’s ghost has to show us, let us clear up one issue of semantics.

According to Bruce David Forbes, the term Christmas now really has two meanings. The first is the religious celebration, and its attendant festivities, which surround the birth of Christ. This is the spiritual side of Christmas, and might be referred to more appropriately as the Christmas Holy Day. But, Christmas also has its secular side as well, of which we are all aware. These are the social things of Christmas that have little to do with the religious experience of the day, and might be referred to as the Christmas holiday. We all use the term both ways, and use them interchangeably, although they are not. But they are also not just pure black and white categories as they have significant overlap.

Gift giving has religious significance, we remember the gifts of the magi to the Christ child, and we remember God’s gift to us, and since we are made in the image of God, we are to be givers, there is religious significance to giving gifts, and gift giving also has secular significance, especially through the purchasing of store bought gifts. Christmas songs, which are one of the few Christmas traditions which date back to the earliest celebrations, have religious significance, one of Charles Wesley’s most famous hymns is Hark, the Herald Angel Sing and they also have social significance, one of the best selling songs of all time in Bing Crosby’s classic White Christmas. As much as people might try, I do not think you can sort of divide them and make a clean break. We cannot say we are going to remove all the secular celebrations from Christmas in order to regain the true spirit of, because the two ideas are inherently connected in our culture. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change how we celebrate, because we can.

If you’ve ever read A Christmas Carol or seen a movie version, you may remember that the ghost of Christmas present is a large jovial fellow who is surrounded by piles of presents and sometimes food. If Dickens were to write the story today, this ghost may stay the same because he can be the symbol of the over-consumption which is so prevalent in Christmas present.

This year on the weekend after Thanksgiving, which of course encompasses Black Friday, consumers in America spent 52.4 billion dollars, which was a 16% increase over last year. The average consumer spent nearly $400, and according to the National Retail Federation, as much as people were complaining about the early opening times of stores this year, of the 226 million people who bought something over the weekend, ¼ of them, or 56 million people, were out shopping at midnight. And of course with that we got the usual stories of craziness.

There was the woman in California who pepper sprayed a group surrounding an amazing Xbox sale at Wal-Mart. There was the story of Walter Vance, a 61 year-old man who had a heart attack in a Target, where witnesses say some shoppers stepped over him as he lay on the floor in order to get to their sales. But my favorite story was of a stabbing at the Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento, California. Now this is not my favorite because a man was stabbed but because of the news story which reported it, which concluded by saying, and I quote, “the stabbing did not interrupt shopping activities…” In other words, a man was stabbed, but don’t worry because it didn’t stop anyone from buying anything, including the man because he was leaving the mall when he was attacked.

According to Forbes, Americans spend an average of nearly $800 on presents at Christmas, which includes, amazingly enough, $130 on presents for themselves, and we spend an additional $1800 on other items, which we tend to forget in our Christmas calculations, like Christmas trees, decorations, food, Christmas cards and travel, for a total of more than $2600 a year. And yet, Stacey Powell, who is an accountant and financial coach, says the most common feelings about Christmas she hears from her clients are shame, regret, anguish and embarrassment. Doesn’t sound like it’s really the most wonderful time of the year for many people.

For most of us we get sort of caught up in this time. We want it to mean more, to be more, to connect us to something different, and yet we’re not sure how. Bruce Forbes, a professor of religious studies, says that “on the one hand, a number of Christians are introspective and self-critical, asking themselves if they have become so preoccupied with the decorations, gifts and dinner preparations that they have forgotten the “reason for the season,” the birth of Christ. On the other hand,” he says, “some Christians complain about public actions and displays at Christmastime that do not acknowledge Christianity or Jesus…. In other words,” Forbes continues, “one concern is about whether my own personal Christmas observances are Christian enough, and the other concern is about whether society’s Christmas observances are Christian enough.”

Because we can’t quite figure out how to solve the first concern about our own celebrations, we seem to be spending our time focusing on the second, and the reported “war on Christmas.” But let me say two things. The first is that I do not believe there is no war on Christmas. While the Supreme Court might say that corporations are people, I can proclaim that corporations are not and cannot be Christians and if we have fallen so far that we expect business to be the ones to proclaim the gospel message for us, then we are done. We might as well close the doors of every church, because we have failed. It is not the responsibility of business or of the government to proclaim the Christmas message, it is up to us. It is our job to proclaim the incarnation to the world, to proclaim that the light of the world has entered the world, it is our job. Why would we ever expect business to do the work of the church? And secondly why would we ever even want to turn that obligation over to anyone else. Jesus does not say, “Go and let someone else make disciples,” Jesus tells us to do it, in fact he commands us. It is not up to Wal-Mart or Best Buy to proclaim the gospel message it is up to us.

Secondly, we cannot proclaim that Christians no longer control Christmas, because as we heard last week, the holiday was never fully controlled by the church or by Christians. This battle between the secular and the sacred has been a recurring theme throughout the history of the celebration of Christmas. This year Fox News listed all the stores that will be saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” but then questioned whether they were doing this because they really meant it or simply because they thought they could make more money by doing so. A popular song on the internet called Christmas with a Capital C, which sets out to tell us why we shouldn’t say happy holidays but instead Merry Christmas, says in their introduction that in the past everyone said Merry Christmas because, in their own words, “it wasn’t about religion.”

In other words, it appear they want to recapture Christmas as a cultural celebration in which we can all proclaim something which is devoid of its religious meaning. I don’t think that is the right goal for us as Christians in proclaiming the birth of Christ. We do not get control of Christmas by making others do it for us, we only begin to control Christmas when we take control of it for ourselves personally. When we turn off the auto-pilot mentality of the season and instead we take the time to decide what is important to us, how we are going to celebrate and what the incarnation of Christ means to us, and what we are going to do about it, not sometime in the future but what we are going to do about it right now in the present. How we are going to live that out in our lives? Rev. Frederick Schmidt perhaps put it best when he said “If we really believed in the life-changing nature of Christmas, then we wouldn’t be unhinged by the commercial blather. We would look straight through it. We would realize that the debate about commercialism and Christmas isn’t the issue at all. The real issue is the inability of the culture to grasp the nature of Christmas itself.” That is where we make our stand, because we can and hopefully do grasp the nature of Christ and so we can look right through everything else.

In today’s passage from Isaiah we are given a vision of what God desires for us as humans. This is not a vision of salvation that will take place sometime in the future, but instead a vision of salvation for the here and now. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news,” Isaiah says. Good news to whom? “To the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor….”

What is salvation for Isaiah? It is the good news of God. What is Good News for us? It is the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is the good news, it is the same message. This passage might have sounded familiar to you because this is the passage that Jesus chooses to preach from for his first sermon which is simply, “today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is the good news, and the message of who that good news is for remains the same. We do not need to look far to see the injustice of poverty and abuse, hunger and oppression, we can see them in our own communities. So how do we proclaim that as we celebrate Christmas?

If you’ve been here for a few weeks you’ve seen one of the videos from the Advent Conspiracy, which highlights the fact that it would take only $10 billion to provide clean running water to everyone in the world. It would take $4.5 billion to rescue 1 million people in the world today who live in slavery, many of them sexual slaves. It would take $6 billion to provide basic education to everyone in the world. It would take $13 billion to provide basic health care and nutrition to everyone in the world, and yet according to the National Retail Federation this year we will spend $465.6 billion in America on Christmas.

A group of five women in Dallas have recently put up a billboard which says “I miss you saying Merry Christmas,” and it’s signed “Jesus.” But what I imagine Jesus saying is how are you proclaiming the good news and to whom are your proclaiming it? We are worried about the person at the check-out counter who is ringing up items we don’t need paid for with money we don’t have saying Merry Christmas to us, and yet we live in a world where today 16,000 children will die from malnutrition. We live in a world where today 500 children will die as a result of war. We live in a world where today 4000 children will die from water-borne illnesses. And we live in a world where millions of people do not know what it means to have peace, hope, joy or love, the names of our advent candles.

What does the incarnation mean to us and what does it mean to the world? “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news.” Last week we heard John the Baptist say that he is only baptizing with water, but that the one who is to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit. As baptized people who have been given the Holy Spirit, we too should be saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, is upon us, because he has anointed me, us, to preach the good news….”

This is not about doing away with Christmas, I love Christmas, but this is instead changing how we approach Christmas and what Christmas means to us. The incarnation means that God entered into the world fully, so celebrating Jesus’ birth with some things of the world seems appropriate, but it does not mean giving everything over to the world either. So as we look at our Christmas present, there are several questions I believe we need to ask ourselves.

The first is to ask, what would be lost if we stopped celebrating Christmas? And what would be gained if we stopped celebrating Christmas? When we answer those questions honestly then we will find what is at the heart of our Christmas celebration, and it will then allow us to begin to answer what we want Christmas to be for us and our families this year.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparing for God to transform the world through Jesus Christ, but it is also a time in which we recognize that God has already transformed the world through the birth of Christ. It is a time of all-ready and not quite yet, a time of celebration and a time of repentance and preparation. Christmas is not about whether we say Merry Christmas or not, but instead about choosing to live like Christ and proclaiming Christ to the world.

As we prepare to look to the ghost of Christmas future next week, let us make the Christmas present what we need it to be for us. Instead of being simply one more Christmas, just like last year or all the years before let us make this Christmas a time in which we see God’s incarnation as transformative and life-changing not just for us, but for the world. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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