Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ghost of Christmas Past

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Mark 1:1-8:

I want you to think of one of your favorite Christmas memories?  I’m willing to bet that most of them do not involve a gift you received or even a gift you gave?  This is going to be true even if you are thinking of childhood memories.  Sure there may have been a bike, or some other special gift that really stood out, but most of our favorite memories of Christmas are about experiences we had, of time spent with family and friends, maybe it’s decorating the tree, or eating the meal, or a special visit to Santa, we might remember opening presents when we were a children, but not actually remember most of the presents themselves, even for the most recent Christmas.  Could you name 5-10 presents you received last year?  I’ve had awhile to think about it, and I couldn’t do it, and I can only remember what the girls got because I looked at the pictures.    And yet, even though we can’t remember the gifts we receive, even though most of our best Christmas memories have nothing to do with gifts given or received, we are constantly told that Christmas is all about gift giving, that it’s about going to the mall, and buying as many things as we can because if we don’t then our loved ones won’t be happy this Christmas, will think that we don’t really love them, and our children will grow up and turn into old scrooges, they’ll end up in counseling blaming us for their problems because we didn’t get them whatever the hottest gift is this year. Yet, even though we know these things aren’t true, year after year we keep doing the same thing.

In Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol, which greatly impacted the creation of our modern understanding of Christmas and its attendant celebrations, the main character Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts.  The first is his former business partner Jacob Marley, who, covered in chains, comes to warn Scrooge first of the dangers if he continues to live his life as he has, and second to tell him of three more ghosts who will come to visit him during the night.  The first ghost is, appropriately enough, the ghost of Christmas past, who comes to help Scrooge to remember and to learn from the past, so that he can move into the future.  Because it turns out that Scrooge wasn’t born a scrooge, well actually he was since that is his family name, but that he was not always the person we associate with being a scrooge.  Following the ghost’s and Isaiah’s lead, we are going to prepare the way and make our paths straight to prepare for the coming of the Christ child, to try and free ourselves of some of the chains that fetter us so that we can come to see Christmas in a new way.

But before we begin, just about every year when I preach about Christmas, someone will accuse me of being a scrooge who just wants to ruin Christmas for everyone, and nothing could be farther from the truth.  I love Christmas.  I listen to Christmas music in July, and begin thinking about my Christmas decorations around the same time, and love just about everything about the season, except the mad rush we get into, and the worship of capitalism and the accumulation of stuff that comes with it, although also remembering that giving is important, indeed that is one of the things that Scrooge discovers, or remembers, from his ghostly visitors.  But what we seek, like Scrooge, is to possibly see a different vision of Christmas from what we do now, a meaningful celebration for us and our families that will leave us filled with joy, not dread, filled with expectation not reluctance, practices that helps us to celebrate the true gift of Christmas, the coming of Jesus.

Now the birth of Christ is only included in two of the gospels, and those are?  (Matthew and Luke)  What we hear in the beginning of Mark, which I labeled the gospel without a beginning or an end, is this vision of John the Baptist, the one who is, from the prophet Isaiah we heard this morning, preparing the way of the Lord, and we are told that John is clothed in camel hair, and that he ate locusts and wild honey, and some thought he was the promised one, but he said no, that he was merely the one to point the way.  In that way he is like the ghosts for Scrooge, he is the one who shows us something different, but not only is the one to come greater than John, but he radically different as well.  From the brief information we have about John, he doesn’t really sound like a lot of fun, whereas Jesus usually seemed to be having a good time wherever he was going, and notice I said usually.  So that means that the things that come before do not determine the things that are yet to come, that while John sets and prepares the way for Jesus, he is not Jesus, he does not establish that this is the way things have to be, that Christ, in the words of Paul, and in the words of Revelation, makes all things new.

What John the Baptist is doing, what prophets’ do, what the ghost of Christmas past is doing, is calling us to return to the way things were, to what we were called to be, not how we operate now.  But, this is not a call that says, “Oh everything was so much better when I was a child, that none of the stuff we worry or complain about now took place then.”  Because that is simply not true.  I can show you journal entries from store workers at Christmas in the 1890s who bemoaned the long hours and rushed and rude customers, along with journals from those customers bemoaning the same things.  The way we celebrate Christmas now really took hold in the middle of the 19th century, greatly influenced by the writings of Washington Irving, Clement Clark Moore, who wrote “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” and of course in the works of Charles Dickens, all of them domesticated, and in some ways simultaneously commercialized Christmas.  Just to give you a hint that it has not always been this way, for a while the celebration of Christmas was illegal in New England, and the Methodist church in America was founded at what is known as the Christmas Conference, because it began on Christmas Eve, and it did so because it was a slow time of the year and all the preachers could leave their circuits and come to Baltimore for a meeting.  I’d love to see the church try and do that today.

And yet there is also something about reclaiming the way things were when we were younger.  In one of the visions Scrooge is shown a conversation he had with his then fiancée as she was breaking up with him and she says, “you are changed… you were another man,” to which Scrooge responds, “I was a boy.”  And that really in the point.  Scrooge changed.  He lost the mystery and magic and wonder of childhood, and had become someone different.  That is what the ghost is telling him, that it didn’t used to be that way, and it doesn’t have to be this way.  Scrooge gets excited in seeing his Christmas as a child because he understood it differently, he saw it differently, and he practiced it differently.

One of the things I often hear from people about their concerns about children receiving communion is that they don’t understand what’s going on, and my standard response is that children understand mystery and wonder and gratitude much better than we as adults do, because we lose that as we grow older.  We forget what a simple miracle the birth of a child is, especially the birth of the Christ child.  We get blinded by the everyday realities of life, in our daily struggles, in our daily toils, we forget the miracle and magic of things as simple as a baby being born and even flying reindeer.  That is what we are called to remember from our childhood, to remember the magic and wonder of the season.  Glen Campbell recorded a song entitled “Christmas is for Children,” but the song concludes by reminding us that we are all children on Christmas Day.  I hope that is what we are called to remember this Christmas, to eliminate the things that distract us, that clutter our lives, that take us away from the magic, mystery and wonder of the season and instead make it drudgery, work and something we would rather avoid.

But there is one other thing we need to remember from the ghost of Christmas past and from John the Baptist, and that is that we have the power to change.  John says “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me… I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  And it’s been awhile, but what do we receive when we receive the Holy Spirit?  Power.  We receive the power of the Holy Spirit, the power to make things new, the power to change and be changed, for all things are possible in Christ Jesus.  We are not locked into the patterns of the past or the power of the present, we can change, and we are called to change, to transform ourselves and to transform the world.

John and the ghost of Christmas Past are not voices harkening to the past out of a sense of nostalgia.  They are not saying, “if only we could go back to the way we imagine it used to be, then everything would be okay.”  Instead it is a voice that is calling us out of the hustle and bustle of the city, out into the wilderness in order to come into contact with God.  This is a voice which is calling us to repent, to turn around, not really the voice we are used to hearing during Christmas, but it is the voice necessary in order to help us prepare for the coming of the Christ child.  It is the voice which helps us with preparation and anticipation.  It is the voice that tells us “someone more powerful than me is coming.”  John calls us to come to the wilderness, to leave the city behind, to leave behind all the things we are told by society that we should be focusing on and instead to come and hear the voice of God, to come and prepare for the coming of Christ.

The question we asked last Advent season still remains, can Christmas still change the world?  The answer is it can, but it requires us to be ready, willing and able to reclaim the Christmas of the past, to reclaim the mystery and magic of the season found in the miracle of the birth of a child in order to transform how we celebrate Christmas this year and to establish new traditions and patterns that will carry us into the future.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.

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