We celebrated Blue Christmas the other day. I have nothing to measure it by, I’ve never done one before, but with the Choir there the attendance was pretty nice, I’m sure that it would have been a little sparse without us joining them at Thanksgiving. The idea is that some folks out there have hard time getting their ho ho ho in gear, something has happened, they have suffered a trauma at this time of year, either recently or sometime in the past and that trauma has left its mark on their holiday season.
And so some churches, and Thanksgiving is one of them, have taken to holding a service for people who aren’t really in the Fa, la, la, la, la mood. It is a little toned down, no Rudolph and no Frosty, it centers on God’s capacity for healing and presence in our lives, there is a lot of talk about strength, we celebrate communion and we draw our hope from the power of Christian community.
It is the kind of thing that you may need if you fall into the category of those who feel a bit at sea during the holidays.
But I think it is the kind of thing that we all might just need from time to time. I think we all might benefit from a little wallowing in misery, a little difficult tenderness.
Because it is far too easy to think of Jesus as the savior to people like us, to strip away all of the characteristics that we seldom see, the ones that we do not enjoy or savor ourselves because we are either not honest about the despair we sometimes feel, or because we are truly so blessed that we can no longer feel some of the pains of this life, and even when we are thrust back into that mire of hurt, we simply cannot process it.
So it is easy for Jesus to become the savior who comes and forgives us all of our sins, the sins of greed and avarice and covetousness and lust and all of the rest of the things that Madison avenue is trying to sell us, well that’s what we have Jesus for, to take away our sins, to crucify them.
We latch onto the little baby in the manger, all sweetness and innocence and leave aside the woman at the well, with all of her sadness and her despair, what does she have to do with us? We love the holy baby but the righteous man we have a little bit of a struggle with, the one who calls us to account for the sins he will take away, the one whose voice shatters the earth and bruises the skies.
We want Jesus to live up here with us, on the heights, with people like us. That is how we picture Him; that is how we celebrate Him; that is the Jesus we worship, the one who abides with us where we are.
And that is the true Jesus. Jesus did come and does come to show us a different path, to illuminate the clay feet we try and hide within Ferragamo wing-tips or Manolo Blahnik pumps. Jesus is the savior of northern European, middle to upper-middle class Caucasians, the investor class, you and me; and anyone trying to deny that Jesus came to save you and me is trying to sell you something and that something is not Jesus.
It is easy to get lost in that Jesus, after all, that Jesus is about you, all about you.
And so we carry on, we hold fast to the story of Mary and Joseph as a testament to the faith that each of them had in their God, to follow the word without question, to brave the wilderness, the judgment of the crowd, the whole schemer because the word of God came to them and told them not to fear, that something great was about to happen to them, and to all of us as well.
That is the Gospel story this morning and it is reenacted in crèche scenes all across the country, all across the world.
But if we were to climb down off of the mountain for a minute, metaphorically speaking of course, though we are up here in Summerfield heights of whatever the neighborhood association calls itself, but if we were to drop all of our cultural presuppositions we might come to see that this is a story of a family who trusted God to deliver them from their poverty and bring them into a new and brighter day.
I mean, these are two young people, leaving home and traveling to a distant place, and not the big city looking for work, they are travelling to Bethlehem, the Willets of Israel, and looking for a place to have a baby; any place will do, they do not have anything so they have nothing to lose.
Imagine for a minute what that might mean to someone whose at their wits end, trying to cope with a down economy, trying to make sure the rent gets paid, trying to see a tomorrow that is in any sense better than the today they are forced to live in. What might the Gospel speak into such a situation?
Can you imagine the picture of Jesus that person clings to in the darkness of night? The birth of Christ to that person might not be the coming of forgiveness and release from things that are abstract, like sin; but instead brings the birth of a whole new world, a new set of possibilities, the coming of hope into a world that brings only fear and doubt.
Jesus may turn over tables in the marketplace but to the people who cling to Mary and Joseph as the harbingers of possibility and hope, the feeding of the five thousand might resonate more, might bring to mind scenes from their own lives; might bring the gospel to vibrant life for them.
We need to be reminded sometimes of what the Gospel has the power to do in the lives of people who we do not know. We need to be reminded that the Gospel does not just reach inside of our hearts and re-orient our sight into ways we had not considered. The Gospel’s power is such that it can reach through anyone’s barriers, find anyone’s pain, anyone’s weakness and transform any life in the name of Jesus.
And so Blue Christmas was revelatory to me, especially when I offered to pray and anoint for healing those people who decided to come forward and seek that blessing. Some people sat down before the line was finished because it was going on so long. People came forward and we prayed and we called upon the Gospel of Christ to enter into their lives and to speak the words that each person needed to hear and I do not know if I did my part right, but so many came forward, so many came in search of hope and healing.
So many needed to hear the gospel; not forgiving them their greed or their lust but assuring them of God’s presence in the midst of their despair and sadness, of their grief or their doubt or their anger. They needed to hear the same word, but they were prepared to hear it differently than we might expect.
In times of loss and fear of loss there is another Gospel to be heard. When loved ones have died, or we fear that loved ones may soon perish there is another Gospel to be heard.
The child in the manger and the story of Mary and Joseph take on an entirely different tone; the dangers involved become more real and the perils that the Christ Child faces are all the more ominous when death is a present reality in your life.
Suddenly feeding the five thousand is a nice story and all, but give me some Lazarus, give me the Way and the Truth and the Life so that I can hang what hope I can muster on the bright star that is the love of God in the Gospel of Christ. The woman at the well might feel guilty, but how do you cope with the guilt of doubting that God still loves you?
I heard some of that on Thursday; some of the fear that the colors have drained out of the season, some doubt that the love of God could penetrate the despair and sadness that people felt. It was a low point for many people, and the holidays did not help.
The sign for us this Christmas is not the simply the child in the manger, serenely sweet and silent, according to the hymn. It is not just Mary and Joseph trudging on toward their destiny, as fixed and as inevitable as the rising of the sun. Those things are true, but they are not the whole story and unless we can grasp the whole story, then we will fail in our callings to reach out to people, seeking them where they are, finding them where they are, loving them where they are.
Our gospel is the model; it seeks and finds us no matter where we are, no matter how high, it can still bring us down to reality with the knowledge of our sin and our need for salvation. The gospel seeks and finds us no matter where we are, even in the midst of fear, at our lowest point, when we have lost confidence in ourselves and in the future it can lift us up, reminding us that though the road may be long and hard, the destination is sure and certain.
The gospel seeks and finds us no matter where we are, even in the depths of despair, when the spectre of death seems to stalk our door it can banish the darkness, making light where we were unable to see, unable to cope.
For me the touchstone scripture for this morning is from Isaiah. “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’” Then the prophecy is spoken, the birth is foretold and we know that God has given us a sign.
And it is as deep and even deeper than Sheol; it reaches down into the darkest places, the places we create for ourselves when we forget that God is with us always. The sign for us foretold in Isaiah and coming to us in the next few days as a child in the manger is as vulnerable and as lowly as any of us. It is as low as we can be at our darkest times.
And it is as high and even higher than heaven; it is the power of love incarnate, of God made flesh come to deliver us from our sin by the only power in the universe that can handle the job, the only will in the whole creation that will not be denied.
The sign, the child, the savior is not one thing; it is not just our savior in our times of great joy and celebration. He comes to us as one unknown, until we meet Him. Until we encounter the Christ we do not know who or what He is or will be for us or what He will be for anyone else.
Just that He will come and He will save.
Save both those in highest heaven and those in the pit of Sheol, the wasteland of despair and doubt.
I’m not saying you should not sing joyous hymns or songs of a silly festive nature. I am saying that you should see Christ as more than someone playing a part in your life, more than a part of your day to day activities. You should see yourself as playing a part in Christ’s life, following in His footsteps and encountering the world as it is, and telling the world of how it could be.