Sermon preached Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 2:1-20
Those who know me know I really like music. You know that I often use music to start a sermon, playing a cd or my i pod. But it’s Christmas Eve, and playing an i pod, well, it just seems like I could be a little more traditional today.
But I so want to begin with a song, and I have been working on one the past few weeks. The lyrics have been changed to reflect our interesting December weather.
I’m dreading a gray Christmas
With all the fog I’ve come to know
Where the gutters drip
You slide and slip
In all the slush that’s on the roads.
I’m dreading a gray Christmas
With every sermon note I write
May the weather become a delight
And may the moon shine bright on Christmas night.
Let’s be honest, not about my singing – please, but let’s be honest, the world in which we live inspires some dread in us. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, at a poetry reading in Minneapolis in 1996 was explaining a poem he was about to read, and how it contained an image of childhood dread, “that sense of omen that a very young child can have, a sense of the possible dangers of the world, when you don’t actually have content for your dread, but you know it’s there.” He then went on, “and of course experience gradually supplies you with the content.”
When we are children, things that go bump in the night may frighten us, though there is nothing there. As we grow, we don’t need things to go bump in the night to know fear and dread. Experience supplies us with the content. All we need to do is turn on the news: think Ebola, think police shootings – shootings by police and shootings of police, think ISIS, think North Korea.
In this week’s Duluth NewsTribune Mitch Albom, a columnist from Detroit, printed letters from children in the Detroit area to “Santa’s helper,” in this case an organization in the Detroit area started thirty years ago by a school secretary who noticed that some kids were coming to school without coats or socks in the winter.
Dear Santa’s Helper: It has been a hard year for me and my parents because… We have lost our home two times…. My Mom couldn’t pay the storage bill so we lost everything. My Mom has been in and out of the hospital. We have spent the night in our car, shower in fast food places, lakes and so forth.
Dear Santa’s Helper: It has been a hard year for me because… My father stopped talking to me after my parents got divorced. He said I was dead to him.
Dear Santa’s Helper: It’s been a hard year for me because… It’s hard to live in a motel. You would think with my Mom working two jobs a day we wouldn’t be in this situation…. For the first time since I was little, I cried in front of my Mom…. None of my friends want to hang out with me because I can’t do the stuff they want to do…. We never did anything wrong. Why did we get this lifestyle?
And I know that some of you here have had a year when your heart has been broken, when some of the things that evoke fear and dread have happened in your lives.
One of the things that kind of amazes me is how many Christmas songs give a nod to fear and dread and difficulty. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone (“In the Bleak Midwinter”). And ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow (“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”). The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight (“O Little Town of Bethlehem”). Even secular Christmas songs chime in. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams. Have yourself a merry little Christmas, may your hearts be light. From now on our troubles will be out of sight./ Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.
Fears, dread, difficulties, muddling through. The people walk in the darkness. Emperors order people to be registered, even if it means traveling for days and for miles. Here’s the bad news. Our fears, our difficulties, will not magically disappear during the hour or so we are here together. Our singing won’t be so loud as to chase all our troubles away. The difficulties we fear will not just vanish with the lighting of candles.
But tonight is not about that news. It is about good news, but we hear this good news is a realistic context. The good news doesn’t come served on a silver platter in a mansion. The good news comes to shepherds in a field – cold and smelly. The good news arrives like the messiness of a birth amid the hay and small of animals. Here’s the good news. The world may not magically and instantaneously change, but we can be different, and even a little different just because we are gathered here. We can be different because we can know hope, a hope that is strong, powerful and tenacious. We can know the kind of hope Anne Lamott writes about. Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff [shit] anyone can throw at us. (Plan B, 275; Small Victories, 231 “Falling Better”).
Hopes and fears meet, and hope is stronger because love is stronger, and love is stronger because that’s God’s very nature. Here’s more good news. Because we can be different, the world can be different too, maybe not in an hour or overnight, but the world can be different. No wonder this is such good news. The word “good news” in the gospel reading is the Greek word used to describe news which affects an entire community, news brought by a runner to a Greek city to share, for example, news about a victory in battle. (John Howard Yoder, in Watch For the Light, December 11) Because we can be different, the world can be different. The world can even be a little more like that world described in Isaiah 11 where the wolf and the lamb live together, the leopard and the kid, the lion and the calf, the cow and the bear, and little children are safe – no hurt or destruction, no more letters to Santa’s Helper about why it has been such a tough year.
This is what Christmas is about, about a God who enters our fearful, messy world and touches our lives with all their difficulties, a God whose love is stronger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us. It is about hope and fear meeting, and about hope being stronger, bigger.
I think we get that. Even in our non-religious cultural artifacts of Christmas, we get that it is about hope, and the strength of hope. Think of some of your favorite Christmas movies or stories. Aren’t they about hope? Unless your favorite Christmas movie happens to be “Bad Santa” or something like that. Dickens “A Christmas Carol” is about a man set in his miserly ways who is able to see his life more honestly, and make changes toward kindness and generosity. It’s about hope. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about an ordinary person who realizes just how many lives his life touches even in the backwater town of Bedford Falls. It’s about hope. The story “The Gift of the Magi” is about the deep love of a couple, the wife who sells her hair to buy a watch chain for her husband and the husband who sells his watch to buy lovely hair combs for his wife’s beautiful hair. It’s about hope. “Elf” discovers his family, and eventually finds acceptance. It’s about hope. “The Santa Clause” has that wonderful line – “Seeing is not believing, believing is seeing.” We can see different. We can be different. It’s about hope. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is about misfits, many consigned to the island of misfit toys, finding a place. It’s about hope. “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” is about a scraggly tree coming to life when given love and care. It’s about hope.
But hope needs to be more than a movie plot and a story line, and it is. Recently Anne Lamott posted a Christmas reflection on Facebook. There was a cartoon in the “New Yorker” decades ago, that I’ve never forgotten, of two men chained at the wrists and ankles to the wall, off the ground, in a jail cell, in a cave. One man turns to the other and says, “Okay, here’s my plan. When the guard comes in to bring us our meals…” That’s how I feel about the last two weeks of holidays, the days of death by cookie, bad nerves, tight smiles and overwhelm. Doomed, like a prisoner, or space alien, but you know what? Also full of hope.
Lamott goes on to share the story of her last reading for her recent book tour. She was not feeling well. She had been given an injection that she said made her face puff up like an apple pie. But at that reading she encountered close friends – a friend since age six, old friends of her fathers – “People who still show up to rally for justice and peace, like poets and do-goods always will, against the myriad endless wars, and oppression, for civil rights and women’s rights and the environment…. They fill me with hope…. Because we are people who show up for peace and each other, this gives me hope and faith.”
Then Anne Lamott remembered how, at this same bookstore, thirty years ago, she got to have tea with the poet and writer Wendell Berry, who was signing books during a mid-December storm. Berry looked out the window and said, “It gets darker and darker and darker; and then baby Jesus is born.”
It gets darker and darker and darker and then baby Jesus is born. The hopes and fears of all the years meet at Christmas. Our hopes and fears meet here tonight. And hope is stronger, because love is stronger and love is stronger because God’s nature is love. Hope is stronger, because the God of love is with us, and when we need God to draw especially close, God just does – even when its messy, even when its inconvenient, God just does.
By the way, those heartbreaking Santa letters, well they go to that foundation started by that school secretary, and the foundation selects the kids it can help, and provides funds for the most needed items like food, clothing, car repair, and educational assistance. Such things speak to me of Christmas – small acts of hope in a fearful world, small acts of kindness and love that remind us that hope is believing, then acting on that belief, that love is bigger than any grim bleak stuff in life, hope and love made real in the messiness of life.
It gets darker and darker and darker, then the baby Jesus is born. Hopes and fears meet, and hope is stronger because love is stronger and the God of love is with us. Know hope, no matter how many fears have touched your life. Know hope. Know that you are loved. Share love with others, because sharing love and hope only increases them. Tonight, it’s about hope. Merry Christmas.