For the past five years, I have preached rather “special” sermons on Christmas Eve at Prince of Peace. What makes them special is that I have a special visitor…Kermit the Frog. You see, it turns out that I can do a remarkable impression of Kermit, so I’ve tried to find a way to make use of that “skill” at Christmastime each year. Here’s a video of this year’s sermon.
Every year, our church offers a “Blue Christmas” service, specially designed for those who find the holidays difficult. This was my sermon for Blue Christmas 2016, preached on Sunday afternoon, December 18.
We gather here today because we are finding Christmas difficult this year. There are many possible reasons for that. Perhaps someone you love has died, or is far away. Perhaps a relationship is falling apart. Perhaps you are dealing with a serious illness. Perhaps you are under a lot of stress. Or perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, you know that life is sometimes hard. And you know that when life is hard at Christmastime, it can feel doubly hard.
Sure, Christmas is the happiest time of year for some people. And maybe it used to be the happiest time of year for you. But not this year. Sometimes all Christmas seems to do is remind us. Remind us that things aren’t the way they used to be. Remind us that this year won’t be like other years. It is so hard to let go of the past at Christmastime.
And that’s no surprise, because if you think about it, the way we celebrate Christmas in our culture is all about the past. All about trying to relive a past from a long time ago. Think about traditions. In so many families, Christmas involves certain foods, certain rituals, at certain people’s homes. Traditions intended to give us comfort in a world that keep changing. And think about the music. How many new Christmas songs make it into the rotation on the radio? Not many. Most are from fifty years ago or more. And think about Santa Claus. What does just about every American adult share in common? A memory of loving Santa Claus, and a memory of finding out he’s not real. A memory of finding out that such an important part of our childhood was false. On some level, Santa Claus reminds us all of a childhood we can never get back.
In a way, Christmas is all about the past. Which is okay, but it’s no wonder that when things change, when we suffer a loss in our lives, Christmas just makes it so much worse. And we just want the Christmas spirit back. The spirit we used to have. But we can’t get it back. The past doesn’t come back.
But here’s the secret about Christmas. The true meaning of Christmas is not in the past. It’s in the present. It’s right now. The true meaning of Christmas is a promise that God made to us, a promise God is fulfilling right now. The promise to always be with us. The promise that the people who lived in darkness would see light. Not a promise that things would be the way they used to be, but a promise that there would be new hope and new joy. The true meaning of Christmas is not about our own past, our own traditions. And the true meaning of Christmas is not even about what happened so long ago in Bethlehem. Forget Bethlehem. Forget shepherds and angels and wise men and Mary and Joseph. Forget baby Jesus. That is a beautiful story, an important story, a good story. A story we will tell again in just a few days. But that story is about the past, and Christmas is about present. Here’s the secret: Christmas is not about the birth of Jesus. Not really. Not directly. Christmas is about God coming to us. Coming into our lives, here and now, coming into our hearts today. Certainly the birth of Jesus is a sign of that. And if that story brings you comfort, then by all means, cherish that story. But the true meaning is bigger than that story. The deepest meaning is closer to us than that. The real meaning of Christmas is that Christ is born in us and among us today.
Gently healing us. Gathering us in his arm. Removing our burden. Giving us life. Forgiving us. Gently enabling us to forgive ourselves, to let go of our anger, our pain, our despair. Christ is born in us and among us today.
I know that’s hard to see. I know it’s not easy. And I know this healing isn’t quick. But Christ has time. Christ has patience. And slowly, slowly, he is working a miracle in you, the miracle that opens your heart to hope, to light, to life.
And so this year, I invite you to honor your pain. Honor it, for it is real. Don’t put it on a shelf, and say, it’s Christmastime, I have to be happy. Your suffering is real, and it’s alright to feel that way.
And I also invite you to trust that even amid that pain, Christ is being born in you today. Christ is being born in you, and he is with you, and he will gently bring you hope, and light, and life.
This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday of Advent. The lectionary reading was Matthew 11:2-11.
I think that normally, John the Baptist is pretty hard to relate to. It’s hard to put ourselves in his shoes, hard to connect with his story. Here’s a guy who spent his entire adult life out in the wilderness. A guy who dressed in camel’s hair, who ate bugs for lunch. A guy who spent his days calling people to change their ways, to turn around and follow, because Christ was coming! John must have had unshakeable faith to be able to do this. He must have believed with every fiber of his being that the long-awaited Messiah was coming, right around the corner. And that he had a job to do to prepare the way for him. And he did that job, no matter what anybody said, no matter how anybody threatened him. That’s hard to relate to, at least for me.
But in today’s gospel, John looks different, and perhaps it’s not as hard to relate to him today. Because now things have changed. John has gotten himself into some trouble. He spoke ill of the king, and because of that, he is in prison. He can’t baptize people in the river anymore. He can’t proclaim the good news to crowds anymore. He can’t be who he was anymore. And he starts to wonder. John knows his scripture, and he knows that one of the promises of the Messiah is to set the captives free, and proclaim release to the prisoners. “Well, here I am!” I imagine John saying. “I’m captive; I’m imprisoned; come, Jesus, prove yourself and set me free!”
“But he’s not coming,” I imagine John saying. “Jesus isn’t coming to free me. I wonder. I wonder if Jesus really is the one I was waiting for. I wonder if he really will do all the things the Messiah is supposed to. I wonder if maybe Jesus was the wrong one. Or maybe I’ve been wrong all along. Maybe it was all one big mistake, and my faith has been for nothing.” Sometimes when we experience suffering, our faith wavers. John the Baptist was suffering, and his faith wavered. And he sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah? Or should we wait for someone else?”
Now that is someone we can relate to. Someone whose faith slipped. Someone who once had no doubts…but now was confused, who just wasn’t sure anymore. Someone who may have wondered things like:
- “Why would God allow this to happen?”
- “Where is God when I need him?”
- “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
- “Why me?”
So how does Jesus respond to John?
He does not release John from prison. He doesn’t even go to see John.
But here’s what he does:
He sends people. He tells those messengers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus’ answer is to send people to John to tell him the good news that they hear and see. And perhaps that is Jesus’ answer to us today as well. Perhaps in the midst of our own faith struggles, our own doubts, our own sufferings, Jesus sends us messengers to remind us of what they see. Perhaps I am one of those messengers for you today, because I can tell you what I see here.
I see people here who have experienced grief, who have buried their parents, their spouses, their children, but who have made it through, and who have experienced healing and hope, and now find joy in life. I see people who have gone through divorce, but who have made it through, and who find it possible to trust and hope again. I see people who have endured chronic illness, who have endured prejudice, who have endured poverty, but who have made it through, and who are strong and confident. I see people who have experienced suffering in so many ways, but who have also experienced God’s light shining on them, a light some didn’t even recognize at the time. And perhaps if you are going through these things right now, perhaps that can bring you hope.
Because what I see are signs of Emmanuel. Emmanuel is the Hebrew word for “God is with us.” And this hope is what happens when God is with us. And that is what Christ is. God with us. That is what Christmas is. The celebration of God being with us, through word and sacrament, through miracles and surprises, and above all through each other, through people who bear the light of Christ, who carry Emmanuel with them.
Because I’ll tell you what else I see when I look around this room. I see people who have borne the light of Christ for one another, and for me. I see people who have taken care of one another, who are taking care of one another. I see people who have forgiven one another, and who are trying to forgive. I see people who have given generously to provide food and toys to people in our community who don’t have much. I see people who have given so much of their time and their treasure to be with someone who is sick, to show God’s love to someone who is lonely, to support someone who is weak. I see a congregation who proclaims Emmanuel. I see a congregation that is Emmanuel, that is Christ’s body here on earth, a community of broken people who nonetheless bears the light of Christ to so many people.
I look out here this morning, and I see hope. Hope that I think could convince the Baptist that Jesus is indeed the one he was waiting for.