Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Blue Christmas: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Here is my sermon for our Blue Christmas service:

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you "Be of good cheer"
It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Except for many of us it’s not the most wonderful time of the year.  People may indeed be telling us to be of good cheer, but let’s be honest and say that we want to smack some of them upside the head, because we can’t.  and how could we be?  The season is not made for those who mourn, those in pain, those suffering loss, those who have no idea what the future will hold.  Everything around us is telling us that we should be joyful and cheerful about how wonderful the season is, how marvelous  the lights and the decorations are, and that if we would only try, if only we would make an effort, that by focusing on the other stuff we could forget everything else we are going through.  We should focus on having a merry Christmas and a happy new year, but how can we when merry and happy might not even be part of our vocabulary?  And let’s be honest that in this moment, it is not the most wonderful time of the year.

I'll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents under the tree
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light beams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

Oh, this is the one that pulls at the heartstrings in normal times, but this year it doesn’t pull, it rips your heart right out of our chests.  What if there is no more home to go to? Or we face a future in which we can’t remain in our home, or we can’t even choose whether we will be home or not.  And then there are those of us who have to face the reality that they are never coming home, not in their dreams and not in ours.  That there will be that glaring absence, the one chair that is not filled, the lost dreams, the lost hopes, the idea of growing old with someone else, of watching them grow old, and there are no presents waiting under the tree with their name on it, although maybe we even bought some for them this year because we couldn’t help ourselves, or perhaps because we might have even forgotten for a moment that they were gone because we had found the perfect gift for them.  And for us home doesn’t even feel like home anymore because it will never be the same.  It can never be the same.

Sleigh bells ring
Are you listening
In the lane
Snow is glistening
A beautiful sight,
We're happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland

There’s that happy thing again, and we’re really supposed to appreciate the winter wonderland when the trees without leaves and the cold remind us of everything that we’ve lost.  At least the weather seems to be matching our moods and our outlook, and on this the longest night of the year, the darkness is all we see and feel and taste and touch and a winter wonderland it is not.

Joy to the World, the Lord has come!
Let earth receive her King... (interrupted while singing)

Joy, really?  Could we just stop this whole thing? How are we supposed to feel joy?

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

That’s a little better.  At least we are hearing something about God’s blessings overcoming the cursing, because although Jesus says blessed are those who mourn, I think he has to tell us that because mourning and pain and loss sure doesn’t feel like a blessing, instead it feels like a curse and in the midst of that we could certainly use his blessing, and that is what we are also told in scripture, that God is with us in these moments.  Indeed at the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, we are given this vision in which we see a new heaven and the new earth and which we are told that God is with us, that God’s home will be amongst the mortals, and that pain will be no more, and dying will be no more, that suffering and sorrowing will be no more, that God will wipe away every tear.  And yet, here, tonight, that vision seems so far away, and that comfort, perhaps, seems so far away.

Instead of happy and merry, we need to hear about blessings overcoming curses and that even in the midst of everything we are facing that we can also find joy and hope and peace and love.  Those are the general themes of the advent candles we lit this evening, and it turns out that we can find those things even in the midst of despair and pain and loss because optimism and hope are not the same things.  Optimism says that things are going to get better, but hope says that things will get better even when optimism has been pushed aside.  Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that hope that is seen is not true hope, for who hopes for what can be seen?  Hope is that thing we cling to when everything says we shouldn’t, and those are the moments in which we need to know that God is present for us and that in these moments we can find hope  and that with hope can come peace, and love and yes even joy in the idea that there can be a light which can shine in our darkness, for it is in the darkness that we need the light.  Flashlights and candles serve no purpose, they have no use, they are ineffective, in the brightness of the day, but here, in the darkness, on the longest night, that is when they poke holes and shatter the darkness.

O ye beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

That’s more like it, because we are weighed down by life’s crushing load, we toil and struggle and now we hear that God calls us to rest beside the weary road. That’s really one of the lines we miss in the 23rd psalm, we hear that God is our shepherd, then we are told that God makes us lie down beside still waters and that God will renew our soul.  God makes us lie down, that is that we have to stop, so that God can restore our soul.  If we keep going, keep working, keep running, then the shepherd is forever chasing us, but instead when we stop, when we pause at a moment like this, to give space to name our grief and our pain and our hope, then God can begin the work of restoring our soul, not that it happens instantaneously or even overnight, because healing takes time, restoration takes time, but we have to give the space for God to be able to do that work, and we also have to realize that our cries of anguish and our cries of pain and our cries of suffering and our cries of despair and our cries of why, even our cries that are too deep even for words.  They are not cries of Christmas, they are cries of Good Friday, they are cries of the darkness of the tomb, and they are answered not really with the birth of a child, but with the emptiness of the tomb and surprise and might we even say boldly, the joy of Easter morning.  Christmas matters, Christmas is important, not because of lights and special songs and presents, Christmas matters because Easter matters.

We are not a Christmas people, we are an Easter people, an event which bridges and links together emotions like pain and joy, darkness and light, sorrow and celebration, discouragement and encouragement, despair and hope, and that story is even there in the Christmas story, although we tend to miss it.  It is in the passage that we heard from Isaiah,  that “The people who walked in darkness  have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined,” that is an Easter statement, because to them and to us, a child has been born, a son given.  And Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, when he is looking down at John, who will prepare the way for Jesus, and Zechariah says “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God,  the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’  That’s an Easter story, that’s a resurrection story.

And then the shepherds are tending their flocks by night, in the darkness, when an angel of the Lord appears to them and shatters the darkness with the glory of the Lord.  That’s an Easter message, of light breaking into the darkness.  We don’t need light in the day, we need it in the darkness, we don’t need hope whenever everything is going well, we need it when everything is bleak, we don’t need peace in times of peace, we need it in times of turmoil, and we don’t need joy in times of celebration, we need it in times of despair, and we are given it to us because of Christmas and because of Easter.  That out of the darkness and despair of Good Friday, that the women went to the tomb and found it empty because Jesus had been raised, just as he said.

In the beginning of John we read “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  That is an Easter proclamation in the midst of John’s proclamation of Jesus’ birth, that Jesus, has come, and Jesus has conquered even the darkness and because of that we are never alone, even on the darkest night of the year, even in the midst of the dark night of our soul, that Jesus, Immanuel, which means God is with us, is here now and forever more For “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” and “The people who walked in darkness  have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel, shall come to thee o Israel…

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