Joy at Christmas
Third Sunday in Advent
December 21, 2014
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. The trees and wreaths are up in the church. The lights are on houses and businesses, and giant inflatable snowmen wave at you as you drive down the street. Christmas cards are arriving in the mail. But nowhere is it more apparent that Christmas is just around the corner than it is on TV. Commercials have been glittered with snow and reindeer for six weeks now. PBS has been airing their annual assortment of Christmas concerts and holiday themed musical variety shows. Broadcasts are flooded with candy canes and silver lanes aglow. Yes, Christmas is in the air, which means the annual return of Christmas movies. Every January they get hopelessly buried at the bottom of the DVD shelf only to burst forth like a Phoenix from its own ashes come Thanksgiving. I like Christmas movies. I may not sit and watch the Hallmark Christmas movie marathon, but I do watch Christmas movies with my family. There are several that have become staples in our home because we watch them every year. My kids are partial to the Tim Allen Santa Clause trilogy, and, of course, the classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer stop-motion movie. And while I do enjoy some of the more recent additions to the canon of Christmas cinema, like Elf, classics like White Christmas are part of our holiday tradition too. But for all the options available, no Christmas movie could ever replace the special place in my heart held by little Ralphie and his Official Red Ryder carbine action turbo shot range model air rifle. I have been watching A Christmas Story at Christmas for as long as I can remember. For me, that movie is as much a necessary part of Christmas as candy canes and Christmas trees.
But it’s another Christmas movie that I thought of when I was meditating on the readings for today, one that considers Christmas from a different perspective. You see, A Christmas Story is told through the eyes of a child. It is all about the wonder and fantasy that children associate with such a magical day. As Ralphie says, Christmas is the day around which the entire kid year revolves. Kids love Christmas – the presents, the time away from school, the excitement and anticipation of wondering what will be waiting under the tree this year, the joy of waking up to see the neatly wrapped packages and a stocking bulging with goodies.
But as we get older, Christmas tends to lose some of its magic. Maybe not all, but definitely some. That’s why I as I was piecing together my thoughts on the words of the Apostle Paul I thought of the Griswalds and their Christmas Vacation. I think it is a movie that adults and parents can identify with, for although it too reflects on the magic of Christmas, it does so with the realization that the Christmas we picture in our heads is seldom the one we actually experience. In that movie, the dad of the family has grand visions of what family Christmas will look like, and what he pictures is something you’d see printed on a postcard, something straight out of Better Homes & Gardens, complete with fire blazing in the fireplace while the family is joyfully gathered together singing Christmas carols. But in reality, when his parents and in-laws arrive, they constantly bicker. He doesn’t get his Christmas bonus. His Christmas tree catches on fire. The turkey is way overcooked. The whole holiday is a comedy of errors, which makes for a funny movie, but also touches on what might be the dirty little secret about Christmas – as well as all holidays.
For many people, the holidays are not especially filled with cheer. For many people, the holidays are a time filled with grief and pain. I think of the loved ones of the 20 names we had on our banner this year for All Saints Day. I think of all the families who lost someone this past year. I think about what Christmas will be like at their house this year, the first Christmas without their dad, without their grandpa, without their loved one who died. I think about the first Christmas after my one grandpa died, how plain it was to see the grief in my mother’s eyes as she tried to celebrate Christmas without her dad for the first time, and I think about my grandma, my dad and his sisters who will be celebrating this Christmas as the first without my other granpda. I’m sure you know people who are facing the same emotional battle.
But it’s not just death that throws a big bucket of water on the yule log. It’s broken relationships. It’s divorce. It’s children spending Christmas without mom or dad. It’s mom or dad spending Christmas without their kids. It’s a tough economy. It’s moms and dads wondering how they can afford the gifts and the meal this year. It’s the disappointment in the children’s eyes when they don’t get the one thing they hoped for more than anything else, be it a pony, an X-Box or a Red Ryder BB Gun. It’s Christmas in the real world, ripped out of the cheesy movies where everything works out in the end. It’s Christmas in a corrupted and fallen creation where heartache and grief don’t take time off for the holidays. It’s Christmas in this reality where heartache and grief seem to work overtime this time of year.
And in the midst of all this, Paul tells us what he told the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Rejoice? For some, that’s easy this time of year. But as life marches on, as time scars us, rejoicing gets harder to do. What Grinch is trying to steal your Christmas this year? Finances? Death? Divorce? Are you desperately trying to hang on to those memories of magical Christmas from your youth, to recapture the experience? Maybe it’s the opposite for you. Maybe you are desperately trying to forget the memories of Christmas from your youth, trying instead to wash away the pain with a fresh snowfall of perfect Christmases for the years to come. Are you struggling to grasp that elusive “Perfect Christmas” so that you can feel the joy that this season is supposed to bring? Does the mere suggestion of rejoicing inspire a cynical or deflated laugh?
I’d like to share with you some words that I think we would do well to remember among the glittering lights of the holiday season. They are words written by a man who admits he has experienced much of the pain this life has to offer, and they bear an important reminder for us all. He writes:
“Perhaps part of the mistake we’ve made [in our yearly celebrations of Christmas] is in forgetting that the first Christmas, the actual birthday of Jesus, started out as the worst of times. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because of taxes, because the money-hungry, tyrannical Roman overlords had forced them to undertake this journey when no pregnant woman should be on the road. No warm, sanitized room awaited them after their trip, but a cold, dark barn. When this young mother went into labor, where was she supposed to lay down to give birth? On rough hay littered with cow [manure]? Where’d they get light? Warm water? Cloths to clean up the blood? It’s a wonder both mother and child didn’t die that night. The original crèche must have looked like a rural crime scene. This is not the way any baby, least of all Jesus, should have been born.
“And yet it was. Far from home, in the dark, in the cold, in the mess, in the blood, in the [garbage] of this world, God was born.
“That’s a Christmas story I like,” he writes, “for it’s one I can identify with. More than that, it’s a story that gives meaning and hope to our own dark, cold, bloody, [garbage-filled] stories of Christmases that seem anything but joyful. For it was on this night that God began to teach us that we don’t need to have a Hallmark Christmas to find peace and contentment and joy in him.
“For Christmas is not about presents. It’s not even about family and friends. It’s about God taking on our flesh and blood, being born as one of us, to share our griefs, to bear our sorrows, and to unite us to himself, that we might find in our griefs and sorrows . . . him. There’s a reason he’s called a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.” The first sound leaving our newborn Lord’s lips would have been a cry. How fitting that is! God knows what it means to weep, to hurt, to suffer loneliness, anger, loss, and, yes, even the pangs of death. You do not have a Savior unable to sympathize with your weaknesses, but one who has experienced them all, so that no matter what your own hurt, he redeems it, and carries you through it” (Chad Bird – Washing Down Antidepressants with Eggnog).
Hear again the words of the Apostle Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!” Is the pain of a broken family hanging over your holiday? Rejoice, for unto you has been born a Savior who was doubted and rejected by his own family. Yet that same Savior has reconciled us to God and has given us the gift of reconciliation with each other so that we are united together as brothers and sisters in Christ, children of the Heavenly Father. Are finances stretched so thin that you can see right through to the other side this season? Rejoice, for unto you has been born a Savior who had no home of his own, for although birds have nests and foxes have holes, the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. Yet that same Son of Man is now exalted high above all heavens, seated in glory at the right hand of God, preparing a room for you in one of heavens many mansions. Is having one fewer person around the tree this year crowding your life with grief? Rejoice, for unto you has been born a Savior who wept at the tomb of a close friend. Yet he did not let his tears have the final say, but he joined us in our human death in order that we might join him in his resurrection and spend eternity living with him and all the faithful in the new and perfect creation to come. No matter how this sinful world attacks you this Christmas, rejoice, for unto you has been born a Savior who felt those same attacks. He felt the pangs of hunger and thirst. He felt the emptiness of loneliness and grief. And he overcame them for you. Rejoice, for unto you has been born a Savior to redeem you from the attacks of this world.
The Incarnation, the birth, the life, and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus make it possible for us to, as Paul says, rejoice always. For when we look at the life of our Savior, we see how our Lord chooses to act toward us. God himself endured the worst this life has to offer. He lived it. He suffered its pain. He suffered its loss. As one pastor put it, thanks to the life and death of Jesus, “evil is now utterly subverted in the cause of good. If the cross of Christ, the most evil act in human history, can be in line with God’s will and be the source of the decisive defeat of the very evil that caused it, then any other evil [this life has to offer] can also be subverted to the cause of good. More than that, if the death of Christ is mysteriously a blessing, then any evil that the believer experiences can be a blessing too” (Carl Trueman, “Luther’s Theology of the Cross”).
Even the heartache of the holidays is overcome in the new life we have in Christ, a life made possible by the birth of our Lord in Bethlehem, and by his death in Jerusalem. “So sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel. Rejoice and exult with all your heart, for the Lord has taken away all the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies.” Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness, your ability to endure this life’s hardships, be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; he has lived your life, he has suffered your grief, he knows what you feel. Therefore, do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to you God who understands exactly what you’re going through, and who has promised to see you through it. And in so doing, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard and protect your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus during the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and each and every day that follows.
May God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.