Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ghost of Christmas Future

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 1:39-55:

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.  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 is also shown the process by which he had become the man he is 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 could make other decisions in his life that the past neither determined the present nor the future.

The second, the ghost of Christmas present, showed us the hyper-consumption and consumerism that affects how we celebrate Christmas today.  And we highlighted the fact that most of us 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, 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 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.  Everyday more than 20,000 children around the world will die as a result of malnutrition, war and water-borne illnesses, problems, most of which, could be solved with a fraction of what we spend on Christmas every year?  And so we heard Jesus, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and it is upon us as well, to proclaim the good news to the world, and I posed two questions for us to ponder, and those where what would we gain if we stopped celebrating Christmas and what would we lose if we stopped celebrating Christmas.  The answer to those questions, I suggested, would help us to realize what was truly important in our own Christmas celebrations which could lead us to potentially celebrating Christmas differently this year and creating new traditions for the future.  And that leads us to the last ghost, the ghost of Christmas future, or as Dickens says, the ghost of Christmas yet to come.

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 pictured 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 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, and that is exactly what he sees on his ghostly rounds.  He sees his servants and others stealing from his home, he sees people joking about having to be paid in order to go to his funeral, and he sees people wondering not about him, but instead about how much money he left.  The answer to that, which Dickens doesn’t provide, is the same for Scrooge as it is for us; he left all of it.  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.

Scrooge is fearful.  But it’s not just the ghosts that frighten him, it could be argued that Scrooge has led most of his life in fear, fear of spending too much and more importantly fear of not having enough.  It is fear that drives his relationships with others and it is fear that drives his relationship with money.  In that Scrooge is not alone.  Many of us are driven by fear, and many of the same fears that Scrooge has, especially around our finances and the fear that we don’t have enough or won’t have enough, especially when we are constantly being marketed to and told that if only we had this then we would be truly happy.  But what is the first thing we hear about the coming of Christ?  Fear not.  It’s what is told that Zacharias and Mary and Joseph, and it’s what is told to the shepherds who are out in the fields abiding.  What they are abiding I don’t know, but there they are when suddenly the darkness is shattered and 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.

One of the questions that Scrooge asks the last ghost is whether “these shadows are of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?”  That is, can he change the future or is it already determined.  We, of course, already know the answer to that because it has been apparent from the first two ghosts, that not only can the future be changed, but that Scrooge has to change and that when he does that the future will be changes as well.  Those changes won’t keep him from dying, because we are all mortal, but that how he approaches life will make all the difference for him now, and for the difference that he can make in people’s lives, which is really what he comes to understand as the meaning and purpose of Christmas, for the world to be changed and transformed.  And after the last ghost is gone, Scrooge “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.”  The spirits won’t just live in him on Christmas day, but will live in him every single day, that Christmas will matter for him and for the world every day.

The gospel passage we heard from Luke this morning is known as the Magnificat.  It is Mary’s song, and it is a song of joy, with the name coming from her line saying that her soul magnifies the Lord.  That is the line that always strikes me.  Mary does not say, “I magnify the Lord,” but “my soul magnifies the Lord.”  I’ve always wondered what that looks like, or what that feels like.  What would it be like for our souls to magnify the Lord?  To me that’s about more than just saying something or even just acting in praise of God, but when our souls magnify the Lord it’s about giving more than just a little of ourselves, but giving all of ourselves, everything we have, and not just doing it once, not just doing it at Christmas, or even when things are going well, but doing it all the time, even when things are not going well or how we would like them to be, which is also what I imagine was going through Mary’s mind.  Here is a young girl, unmarried, who is told that she is going to have a child.  I don’t imagine that her first thoughts were those of joy, or maybe even feeling blessed, and yet that is what she says, or even sings, out to God, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  And what she also says in the future generations will call her blessed.  Although in the protestant tradition we’ve sort of rejected, or at least forgotten, Mary, in contrast to her veneration her in the Roman Catholic church, we can clearly say that she made a difference in lives, and certainly made a difference in the Christmas story, and we can still remember and celebrate Mary today, of her soul magnifying the Lord, or being filled with joy, of celebrating Christmas every day.  We are told that after the shepherds visit that she treasured what they had told her in her heart.

We too should be celebrating Christmas every day, which should fill us with joy but not joy as it is typically understood, which we also talked about last week.  Yesterday, I came across a quote from George Lucas that I though summed this up well especially as it applies to Christmas, and I’ll give credit to the Force, or at least to the Holy Spirit for helping me find it.  Lucas said, “Happiness is pleasure, and happiness is joy. It could be either one.  Pleasure is short lived.  It lasts an hour, a minute, a month, and it peaks very high…  Joy doesn’t go as high as pleasure, but it stays with you.  It’s something you can recall. Pleasure you can’t.  So the joy will last a lot longer.  People who get the pleasure will say, ‘Oh, if I can just get richer, I can get more cars…’  You will never relived the moment you got your first car.  That’s the highest peak…  Pleasure’s fun, but just accept the fact that it’s here and gone.  Joy lasts forever.  Pleasure’s purely self-centered.  It’s about you.  A selfish, self-centered emotion created by a selfish moment for you.  Joy is compassion.  Joy is giving yourself to something else, or somebody else.  It is much more powerful than pleasure.  If you get hung up on pleasure, you’re doomed.  If you pursue joy you’ll find everlasting happiness.”

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 because God so loved the world. Christ is a sacrificial gift given to us, and that is why it doesn’t give us pleasure, because that is self-centered, but it does give us joy.  Christ comes as greatest present that God can give us.  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?

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.”  Scrooge became filled with the Christmas spirit and lived it out in everything that he did.  He stopped being self-centered and instead sought joy by giving to others and giving of himself.  Will we too learn the lesson and try and keep Christmas all year long?  Will we remember that we too are filled with the spirit and that it “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 pursue joy not pleasure and that we welcome the Christ child into our lives today and every day.  What does Christmas mean to you? How is Christmas changing you? Does Christmas still make a difference?

At the end of the novel, Dickens says of Scrooge, “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well….  May that be truly said 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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