December 6, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I have been decorating my house for Christmas and this week, I will be putting out my creches. Part of the creche tradition in my household is the journey of the wisemen. I place the wisemen from one of the creches on the landing of our second floor stairway where they wait patiently until December 11th. On that day, they begin their descent down the stairs, one step every day, until finally, on Christmas Eve they join the rest of the characters in the manger on the cabinet in our living room. The three wisemen and their stalwart camel made this journey for years without incident but in December of 2013, tragedy struck: one of the wisemen never made it to Bethlehem. He was eaten three days into his journey by a rambunctious puppy named Cody. Since that day, the two remaining wisemen and their camel have continued their annual trek toward the stable but now they travel in the safety of a glass covered crockpot. Cody can see them in there but he can’t get at them.
It is a brutal world out there beyond the stable and I’m guessing that most of us wish that we could travel life’s road in a large glass dome that would protect us from all of the dangers that can beset us on the way, but we know that’s not possible. The world into which Jesus was born is a world that contains both joy and sadness, both delight and despair. Even though our creche scenes may project warmth and light, we know for certain that even on the night when Jesus was born, there was a home in another neighborhood in Palestine where family members gathered to comfort one another after the passing of a loved one. We know for certain that on the same night Mary and Joseph held their newborn baby in their arms, there was another family who wept as they watched their child take his last breath. And we know for certain that even as Jesus’ parents offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for his new life, another man, another woman cried out to the heavens that night asking, “Why, God? Why must I bear the pain of this grief?”
I don’t know the names of the men and women and children who were suffering and crying and weeping on that most holy of nights, but I know they were out there because they are always out there. We know that beyond the stable, the world was and is full of sorrow and grief and the Bible is honest about our suffering. People who criticize Christmas for being too sentimental have never listened to the scriptures read in church during the weeks of Advent: during these weeks we read from the prophets who describe with raw emotion the suffering of the people and the burdens they bear. And that stable from the gospel of Luke that we craft into porcelain beauty was an unheated barn full of the smell of cattle and the scurrying of rats. Even in the gospel of Matthew with its regal portrait of exotic wisemen, we hear that when the magi arrive in Bethlehem, they offer the baby Jesus gifts of frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh are oils people used to anoint the bodies of the dead. We give our babies music boxes and rattles; the magi gave Jesus embalming oils.
“Welcome to the world, kid,” they said to Jesus. “Life is short so you’re going to need these.”
And of course, the gospel of Matthew also has the starkest story of all: the story of King Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children as he seeks to destroy the newborn Christ child.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
The gospel portrayal of Christmas is no Hallmark card, and if all of our Christmas songs and decorations and children’s pageants and chestnuts roasting by open fires and brown paper packages tied up with strings have made Christmas seem like gilt colored sentimentality with no place for those whose hearts are broken and whose feet are weary and whose bellies are hungry and whose souls are heavy, then we haven’t been listening to the Bible because when we do listen, we discover that these are exactly the people for whom Christ was born.
I don’t know their names — the names of those who were suffering and crying and weeping on that most holy of nights, but I know they were out there because they are always out there, and Christ was born into the world for them.
And sometimes those people are not “them” but are “us.” We don’t live in glass covered domes and so we — sitting here together — are the ones with wounded hearts and weary hands. Some of us are more wounded than others and some are more tired than the rest, but all of us have hurts because pain is the cost of living lives in love. If we love deeply, we will hurt deeply. The only way to avoid it is to not love. So when Christ came to show us the blessing of profound love, he also came to help us bear the pain of its profound cost. He knew that love for others could both make us and at times un-make us and so he said, “I will walk this road with you, and when you have been completely undone by the costs of your love and compassion for others, I will be in that tomb with you and then I will raise you to new life once again.”
Christ was born into the world for you, for us.
John James and Frank Cherry, the authors of The Grief Recovery Handbook, tell us that the American approach to grief is to bury your feelings, grieve in private, and wait it out, hoping that time will heal your wounds. As a consequence, Christmastime becomes especially difficult for those in pain because they just don’t feel in the Christmas “mood,” but they don’t want to spoil the season for others. We’re all supposed to be merry and bright. Some churches even hold a special worship service at a separate time that they call “Blue Christmas Worship” for those in their congregations who are grieving, a practice that while well-intentioned, in effect says to the broken-hearted, “Let’s gather you over here by yourselves so that you don’t have to deal with the joy of Christmas and the rest of the congregation doesn’t have to deal with your sadness.”
In this church, we will not separate the hurting from the healthy, the stricken from the standing, the wounded from the whole, the grieving from the joyful, the tired from the strong, because we are Christ’s people and Christ came into the world for all of us.
If society tells us to bury our feelings, the gospel tells us, “Weep. Cry out from the depths of your heart and refuse to be consoled, for Christ knows your grief and he has come to bear it upon himself.”
If society tells us to grieve in private, the gospel tells us to grieve within the community of the church. If you need to talk about your pain, we will listen, even if the wounds are decades old and refuse to heal. If you prefer not to talk about it, we will keep a respectful quiet, and allow you to be quiet for as long as you need. We will not insist that you get over it, or stop thinking about it, or move on but will accept your sorrow as a testimony to your abiding love that refuses to end.
And if society tells you that time heals all wounds, we will declare that time is not the great healer but Christ is. Christ knows our suffering and is acquainted with our grief and on the cross he gathered all of the hurt of the world to him. He said, “Death, do your worst, but my love will be more powerful than you for not even death can break the bonds of love. I am with you always even to the end of the age.”
The theologian Al Mohler said, “Christians bear a particular responsibility to surround fellow believers with this confidence, and to minister Christmas joy and love to those bearing griefs. We stand together in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, declaring with the Apostle Paul that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. We bind one another’s hearts, respect one another’s tears, and remind one another of the blessed hope [of Christmas when Christ entered our hurting world.] [And we will ] hurl the message of life over death against [evil] and death, who meet their ultimate defeat in Christ.”
Christ calls us to love deeply and well because such profound love is a great blessing to the world, but Christ knows that such love comes with a cost, and so he also promises that he will bear that cost with us until we can once again be raised to new life.
And as Christ’s people, we too make this promise: we will bear the sorrows of one another with patience, respect, and tender care, so that the world may see in our love for one another the blessed hope of Christmas.