A sermon preached on December 14th, 2008 based upon Isaiah 61:1 – 4, 8 – 11 and John 1:6 – 8, and 19 – 28, entitled “Doing Christmas right.”
Two weeks ago I mentioned in my sermon that I was hopeful regarding being able to do Christmas right this year, because of the fact that my family and I had managed to “pull off” Thanksgiving unusually well; the five of us all home together visiting the grandparents, keeping the darkness at bay and holding out room for the light.
So I wanted to continue today with that theme of “what does it mean to do Christmas right?”
If I had the talents of Martha Stewart, I might give you advice on the proper way to hang garlands, decorate trees, wrap presents, and bake cookies. I’m not very good at that sort of thing, so my sermon on the subject on how to do Christmas right will necessarily go in another direction, and I will leave others better equipped than myself to give that sort of advice.
I want to acknowledge that there are a lot of you out there who really enjoy that aspect of Christmas, and I want to honor that. I realize that it is in such things as putting up decorations, wrapping presents with an eye for beauty, and baking delicious cookies that many people do indeed express the giving and the delight that is such an important part of Christmas.
As a preacher, I am responsible for reflecting upon what clues the Bible might provide in regard to how to do Christmas right, and so I was led to ponder the experience of the persons who first experienced the mystery and miracle that is at the heart of Christmas. What would it take for us to stand in a similar place to the one they stood?
Reading over the Christmas stories, this is what I came up with:
Live in a time of great economic and political uncertainty, under an oppressive government that arbitrarily makes decrees and practice random acts of wholesale violence.
Become a local scandal — the object of scorn. Be one of the outcasts of your society.
Be homeless, far from what you once called “home,” without any family or friends at hand.
I am being facetious here, of course, but the point I want to make here is that Christmas is about a light breaking into a deep darkness. The very first people to experience the joy and the love of Christmas were a homeless couple having a baby out of wedlock, a bunch of poor shepherds who would have been unwelcome in polite society, a couple of aliens from a far country worn out by their long, hard journey and unfamiliar with the local customs, and that all of these people lived in the context of the violence and oppression of Rome and King Herod.
The first Christmas wasn’t experienced by people cozy, rich and comfortable, but by people living on the edge who saw little reason to hope.
A light shines in a deep darkness, and perhaps the wonder of the light can’t be fully appreciated unless you are first acquainted with the deep darkness.
The Old Testament lesson David read for us from the prophet Isaiah would later be read by Jesus himself as he began his work, and serve as a kind of mission statement for his ministry.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners… comfort for all who mourn, a garment of praise for those with a spirit of despair.”
Indeed it was the poor, the brokenhearted, the imprisoned, those who mourned and those who were in despair, who responded most readily to the grace present in his ministry.
The passage read for us by Bob from the Gospel of John isn’t a “Christmas story” per se, but the words spoken by John the Baptist give us a lot of direction in regards to how to approach Christmas.
John makes it quite clear that this isn’t about him.
“I am not the messiah.”
Are you Elijah?
“I am not.”
How about a prophet?
What are you then?
“I’m just a voice crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.”
As the Gospel writer declares: “He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light… (the true light that gives light to every person, coming right now into the world.)”
In the end, Christmas isn’t about something we do; it’s about something God has done and continues to do. God comes to be with us. In a certain sense, we can’t do Christmas at all. Ours is simply to ponder what God has done.
I went on the internet looking for statistics about all the people who have a hard time with Christmas with depression and such, and what I found was, actually most people enjoy Christmas. The one thing that did seem clear about this time of year is that emotions are intensified. The highs are higher, but the lows are lower.
There are some of us who know how to do Christmas right in the sense of letting it be primarily a thing of joy, but I do think there are many of us who, even though we may experience a fair amount of joy, also experience feelings of inadequacy at this time of year:
We look at our family connections and perhaps it seems dysfunctional in contrast to images of truly happy, loving families. Our families can seem terribly flawed.
The gifts we may give may sometimes seem inadequate, poorly chosen, or too cheap, or, on the other hand, we may feel badly that we couldn’t budget ourselves better, realizing we spent way too much money. We may find ourselves feeling irritable, or worse, downright hostile, in relation to not only strangers who steal our parking spot, but family members as well, aware of the fact that we are supposed to be feeling full of love.
In various ways, we may feel simply inadequate — “not good enough.”
So once more, hear what John the Baptist says. “After me comes one the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
It makes a big difference, I think, how you hear these words of John. “I am not worthy.”
Perhaps we imagine him saying this with a load of self-contempt and self-loathing. But I think this is inaccurate. I think John said these words in a matter of fact sort of way. In other words, my worthiness isn’t the issue here. I never could “make myself worthy”. I’d be a fool to try. This isn’t about me.
It’s about Jesus.
Jesus is a gift, that comes to all us poor slobs.
Contrary to the well known song, what we are waiting for doesn’t depend upon whether we’ve been naughty or nice.
So we can relax. We can let go.
So my most practical piece of advice in regard to how to do Christmas right is this: First, give up any notion of doing it “right.”
Second, be gentle with yourself and with others. This is indeed a peculiar time of year. The highs are higher, but the lows are lower.
Don’t get thrown by the yucky stuff that inevitably shows up in your heart, or in the hearts of those with whom you live closest. You have not been banished from the manger just because you feel irritable, or angry, or jealous, or lonely, or depressed. Hardly. Indeed, in a certain sense these things make you all the more welcome. It is to the brokenhearted, the grief stricken, the despairing that Jesus comes.
Perhaps the best Christmas t.v. special of all time is Charlie Brown’s Christmas. I’m sure you’ve seen it. Charlie Brown find’s himself in charge of the Christmas pageant, and he tries so hard to Christmas right, but all his effort just seems to make him more and more miserable.
Finally he cries out, “Isn’t there anybody who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”
Linus, security blanket in hand, replies, “Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” He walks calmly to the center of the stage. “Lights please,” he requests. And then this, and only this: (In the actual sermon, I played a tape of Linus speaking.) That’s it, Charlie Brown. That’s what Christmas is about.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.