The Hopes and Fears of All the Years
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; Luke 2:8-14
This year, in the Advent and Christmas season, in addition to the traditional biblical texts, we’ll also be looking at the fictional story “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. Now, you might think it an odd choice. But, prior to the publication of Dickens’ classic work, the celebration of Christmas was a very somber event; not at all the joyous, festive occasion we have come to know and love today. If you think our modern quandary regarding the commercialization of Christmas versus Jesus as the reason for the season is a new controversy, you would be mistaken. Much of what we struggle with today was a challenge in Dickens’ context as well. Can Christmas joy be experienced by the humble, poor and weak or is it the sole property of those who try to purchase Christmas just as they would any other novelty item? How do we focus attention on the true gifts of Christmas (hope, love, joy and peace); gifts given by the Christ Child and not available on Amazon? How do we condemn the message of marketing: that joy can be found in a brand new Lexus in the driveway? What does a “December to Remember” really mean?
These are important questions to wrestle with and I’ll tell you why: because Christmas is anything but joyful for many people. A few years back I was visiting with a church member who was terminally ill. When people are terminally ill, they will share with you the things they’d ordinarily keep to themselves. The woman’s daughter, Sarah, who lived several states away, had recently gone through a painful divorce. Each time the two of them spoke by phone, she heard the sorrow and loneliness in her daughter’s voice and so she encouraged her daughter, frankly pleaded with Sarah: “Please, go to church on Christmas Eve. Don’t stay home. It will be good to be with people. You’ll feel better if you go to church.” A couple years later, I attended a Christmas Eve service. An elderly couple in the congregation was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary that day. That is, without a doubt, a wonderful thing. But I listened with horror when the pastor during the service announced their anniversary and commended their commitment to honor their marriage covenant for 50 years. He encouraged all of us to applaud; but all I could think about was Sarah. I had no doubt that, in that sanctuary, were others like Sarah: men and women whose marriages had ended despite their most valiant efforts; men and women who’d mustered up their courage to come to worship alone that night because they trusted it would make them feel better.
So you see; how we talk about this season does matter. How we define love and joy and hope and peace matters. And we limit – in fact we prevent people from celebrating this season if we are unwilling to acknowledge the pain and suffering in our world and our personal past heartbreaks. Advent is a season of preparation and it matters how we prepare to celebrate the remembrance of our Savior’s birth. There’s nothing wrong – in fact there’s everything right – about acknowledging our deepest hopes and our fears because the light of the world has entered into our darkness to address those hopes and fears.
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Our past is not something to be ignored, suppressed or condemned because our past exercises great power over our present. That is what the Spirit of Christmas Past reveals to Scrooge. In the case of Scrooge, his childhood had been filled with rejection and loneliness. Yet when the Spirit leads him quickly through his past decades, he is also able to see moments of great joy. He must face his past – the joys and the heartbreaks – if he is to live fully in the present. He must acknowledge the nature of his past relationships if he is to embrace new, healthy relationships. Because the hopes and longings we carry with us have taken shape in response to our past; they are the fruit of our past experiences.
So, what is it that you long for most this season? I’m not asking what’s on your Christmas list or that silly proverbial question about what you would do if you had a million dollars. I’m asking about your hopes, your desires, your deepest longings.
This morning’s two scripture readings are both birth announcements. In the case of Isaiah, it is the proclamation of a king who will restore the fortunes of Israel; a king descended from the great King David. That new king, though only a child, represents salvation for God’s people. Even as a child, he is deemed a wonderful counselor, a mighty God, an everlasting Father, a prince of peace. As Christians, we have come to interpret that Isaiah scripture as prophecy about Jesus. But the Israelite kings were also called sons of God and viewed as a father to their nation. In Isaiah’s time, the people of Israel are threatened by strong nations all around them, seeking to exploit them and overpower them. Sadly, their eventual destruction will be the result of betting on the wrong horse; of making alliances with nations that are not to be trusted. Only God is worthy of our trust. Only God has the capacity to reclaim us and to redeem us from our past sorrows and suffering. Perhaps at Christmas – more than any other time of the year – people try to hide their pain by purchasing expensive gifts, by lots of dinner parties, fancy dressing and decorating. But none of those things can soothe our deep seated sorrows or our distant regrets. Only a child can do that. Only a child can bring light into the darkness of our lives. Only a child can dispel the regrets and fears of all the years. Only a child can fulfill our deepest hopes and longings.
And so the announcement of Jesus’ birth comes to those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Shepherds had a rough life. Their work was hard; they were disdained and viewed suspiciously by the wider culture. I doubt there was much joy in their line of work. Yet the angel chooses the likes of them to be recipients of this birth announcement. The angel says, “To you is born this day…”; not to the wealthy folks, the politically powerful, the religious professionals, even the everyday Jewish Joe. Nope; it’s these shepherds who receive this remarkable birth announcement: this baby is born for them; this baby will be their Savior.
You see, good news doesn’t belong to the ones who’ve got it all together and got it made; this kind of good news doesn’t give a hoot about a Lexus in the driveway. This is good news for those who need it most: the poor, the struggling, the lonely, the despairing and the grieving ones. This birth announcement is good news for those who need it most. A baby, a vulnerable infant, swaddled in clothes and nestled in hay, will be the one to change the world and to bring hope and joy and peace out of the very worst of circumstances. He brings light to the darkest places in our world and in our lives.
In Dickens’ classic, the Spirit of Christmas Past shines the light on Scrooge’s life. It is hard for Scrooge to watch; tough for him to process. Perhaps it would be easier if he didn’t look. He tries to snuff out the Spirit’s light; but it’s impossible. Even when he pushes its extinguisher cap down as far as it will go, light still shines forth because, as John’s gospel reminds us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[i]
Friends, the word Advent means “coming.” It is a season that prepares us to remember and celebrate Jesus’ birth. It is a season that reminds us that Jesus will come again. It is a season that reminds us that the Spirit of Jesus is still with us. He came to us not as a mighty general commanding troops. He came to us as a poor and vulnerable baby born to peasants and his coming is good news for those who need it most. This is the season to prepare your heart to celebrate his coming by considering your past; by acknowledging your heartbreaks; by accepting that you, too, are often vulnerable. This is the season to name and face your fears. This is the season to reach deep into your soul to identify your deepest hopes and longings. This is the season when the winter solstice will graphically remind us of an entirely different and enduring light source. This is the season to affirm your faith that whether in the dark streets of Bethlehem or Lafayette, shineth the everlasting light and that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in a child named Jesus.
Friends; in the midst of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, we know the truth that God’s blessings are not a commodity for the fortunate, favored few for God’s blessings came wrapped up in the vulnerable flesh of a baby. And in that child, God has blessed us… everyone.
[i] John 1:5
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