Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2008

2008.12.24 “A Blue Christmas This Year?” Christmas Eve 2008

Central United Methodist Church

“A Blue Christmas This Year?”

Pastor David L. Haley

Christmas Eve

December 24th, 2008

 

       I was standing in the checkout line at Costco, and it occurred to me that maybe this Christmas instead of scrutinizing the story of Jesus’ birth for new information (there’s not any), maybe I should be looking up and about, at what’s going on around me. Checkout lines at Christmas are great places for doing that, aren’t they?  And you’ve always got plenty of time.

        When I looked around, I concluded that, for many, this is likely to be a “Blue Christmas.”

Blue Christmas, of course, was not the song sung by the angels, but by our earthly King, Elvis. It’s a Christmas song written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, first recorded by Ernest Tubb in 1948 and then – in signature style – by Elvis in 1957. It’s a heart-broken tale of unrequited love during the holidays that has long been considered a Christmas staple of country music. You don’t hear it much in stores, lest, being reminded of some Blue Christmas past, you might put your money back in your pocket and go home, which, evidently, a lot of people are already doing this year. (By the way, the best antidote to a Blue Christmas, I’ve found, is not the version by Elvis, but the one by Porky Pig. Gets me every time)

The reason people are blue this Christmas is not because of unrequited love, but because we’re all scared for our well-being in a free-falling economy. We’re wondering, “Will I have enough money to get by?” “Will I lose my job?” “Can I afford health insurance?” “How will I pay for my son or daughter to go to college?” “Will I have enough money for retirement?” 

If these questions sound familiar, it’s not only because they’re the questions we’re asking, but also the questions that drove the election of Barack Obama as our next President. (27 days – but who’s counting?) Christmas, however, is not the celebration of the birth of Barack Obama, who is not the Messiah, despite the high expectations we are placing upon him.

For the first time this year, the American Psychological Association conducted a holiday stress poll and found that 75 percent of Americans say this season they feel as much stress as or more stress than last year.

We already know, in an ordinary year, that holiday stress levels are high, as we try to do everything expected of us: bake and clean and do Christmas cards and mail packages and party and entertain. On the first Sunday of Advent, a Sunday School teacher asked her class of six-year-olds what the time before Christmas is called. A little girl raised her hand and said, with more truth than she knew, “It’s called Advil!” (John Buchanan, sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, December 24th, 2007)

 

This year, it’s worse, and the fear of not having enough money is a big reason why. Nancy Molitor, a Wilmette psychologist, says: “In my 20 years of practice, I’ve never seen anything like this in terms of stress levels and [how] they’ve continued to be elevated.” “I’m seeing a level of intensity and stress that we haven’t seen since 9/11.” (“Unhappy holidays: Stress—largely because of money woes—is taking its toll” by Carolyn Starks, the Chicago Tribune, December 22, 2008)

 

But if you think you’re blue, remember how as a child, when you didn’t get everything you wanted for Christmas and your mother reminded you, someone else has it worse? Sergio Lopez, of Melrose Park, could be that someone. His situation was described in an article in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, as an example of the challenges some people face. His wife died in April.  Now’s he raising as a single parent 3 children (ages 7, 4, and 7 months), one of whom is severely disabled.  After his wife died, he lost his job. This month, his house caught on fire.  And we think we’re having a blue Christmas? (“Widowed, jobless, trying to raise 3 kids alone,” by Gerry Smith, the Chicago Tribune, December 23, 2008)

        So if you weren’t having a Blue Christmas before you came to church, now you are.  On this Blue Christmas, what possibly could this ancient story about the birth of Jesus have to say that might cheer us up?

The story is a simple story, more suggestive than descriptive.  There’s a lot going on behind the scenes; more than most of us appreciate.  What was it like to live in a world where you wanted to believe God was active, where you’ve been told God was active, but most of the time, God was silent and unseen?  What was it like to live in a world where you believe God rules, but in reality, Caesar ruled, and your life was dominated by Caesar and his army of occupation? What was it like to live in a world where God was up, the world of the dead was down, and angelic messengers flitted in between?  What was it like to live in a socially stratified world, where if you had the misfortune to be born a shepherd, or a farmer, that’s all you’d ever be? With that background, we begin to understand what’s so radical about a baby being born to a poor couple, but announced to shepherds as Lord and Savior, worthy of worship.

        It’s a story about adversity, about a mysterious pregnancy and the stigma that went with that, and on top of everything else, a rugged journey, and finally, no place to stay, certainly no place to have a baby.  Imagine how anxious and fearful Joseph and Mary must have been?  It almost reminds you of those young mothers in labor, without insurance, who wait in the parking lot of a hospital until their labor is too far advanced for them to be turned away.

        It’s a story about the hope for the downtrodden; as Mary said in her song, “The Song of Mary,” as found in Luke 1: 46 – 55:  “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” It wasn’t to Herod or Caesar that the Good News came, but to Joseph and Mary and unwashed and unlettered shepherds, people who rarely made it to church. It was such people Jesus hung out with through his life, and finally hung with on a cross. These were the kinds of people Jesus especially loved, and said his Father loves also. No matter how bad off you are, or how low you go, there’s hope. 

But what’s most amazing is this: finally, it’s a story about God.  When God finally shows up in the world, it’s not as we might expect – in power and majesty — but in vulnerable love, in a way we can understand, born among us in an infant, to a poor couple in obscure circumstances. “God so loved the world,” says the Gospel of John, “that he gave his only Son.” (John 3:16).

This, finally, is also what the story asks of us: with the love of God for us revealed in a human face, God asks that we too should love one another, that we should love those no one else loves, that we should love life and this beautiful world, and that we should love God, the One from whom we come, and the One to whom, finally, we go.

Author Frederick Buechner, in his book The Longing for Home, remembers a Christmas sermon he heard fifty years ago, that brought this point home to him. He was trying to write a novel and he went to church one Sunday to hear a well-known preacher named George Buttrick, who said that someone asked him after church the week before if he were going home for Christmas. The preacher then looked up at the congregation and asked it again, “Are you going home for Christmas?” Like many others who wish they could go home this Christmas but can’t, for one reason or another, Buechner remembers: “He asked in a way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move on to his answer to the question, which was that home, finally, is the Manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel.”

On a blue Christmas like this, it’s easy to feel blue, get tunnel vision and feel sorry for ourselves. Weighed down by our anxieties and fears, our manner and our posture reflects it, even our eyes are cast down.

There is a painting like that, which Norman Rockwell did in 1957, called “Lift Up Thine Eyes.” In it he shows busy city people passing by St. Thomas’ Church in New York City, all with hunched shoulders and downcast eyes. Above them – which, of course they cannot see – is the soaring facade of the church, replete with saints and angels.  On the front of the church, a man is changing the bulletin board, which says, “Lift Up Thine Eyes.” 

That’s my message to you this Blue Christmas: “Lift Up Thine Eyes.”

Look up at the heavens and listen,

only then will you hear the angels song. 

Look around, only then will you be able to see those whose needs are greater than yours, and be able to help.

Look into the manger, where you can see the face of God in Jesus Christ, the revelation of Love. Seek to live in such a way.

Maybe things are not so bad, after all.

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