Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | December 5, 2021
People will ask, “Are you ready for the holidays?” have you made the necessary preparations – bought the needed ingredients – organized your special dish – ordered that special gift?
Are you ready for the holidays on a different level – to face the traditions you follow – to engage with the people in your family circle, some who may require a special level of grace or tolerance on your part? Thanksgiving is like a warm-up for the big show of Christmas. Ready or not, here it comes!
For most of my adult life, which is most of my life, Christmas traditions have been shaped by my work as a minister. When my children were young, I made it special for them and they knew Christmas meant church services. Now they are grown and follow their own family traditions. I am still involved in church, as is my wife who is also a minister. By the time the day rolls around, unless it falls on a Sunday there are no plans to do anything. It is a day free of expectation.
That’s the way I like it. Expectations can be fraught with peril. Don’t have to go anywhere – don’t have to do something – don’t feel left out of anything. There are no conflicting expectations – no one is disappointed over the difference between the ideal and the real.
It was not like that when I was growing up. My mother, who passed away three years ago at the age of 96, never enjoyed Christmas. Up until the last few months of her life, she lived in her own home near my sister Barbara in Roseburg, Oregon. My sister would send us regular email updates on her interactions with mother. I kept one from six years ago. It reads –
“At Mother’s this afternoon, preparing to set out Christmas decor and she says “I sure don’t have the Holiday Spirit.” My reply, “Mom, you never have.” With the look that says it all and the words to confirm, she says “I NEVER have liked Christmas!” Pause, “Mom”, I say, “I am sure you liked it at one time”, thinking of her childhood, pre Robert F. Mann. “Oh NO, I NEVER have!” More clarification and Mom calms down a bit to say it basically all stems from the pat answer of “Never having the money to buy the gifts”. I reminded her we were kids and knew no better and thought Christmas was the time of year for joy, until she made it clear there was no joy to be had.
Mom was out to prove her point with the remembrance of another ruined Christmas that began with Joe wanting an Erector set, an expensive toy that she had to substitute with a building set made of cheap plastic nowhere near the quality of the Erector set. She added with gusto “That was the year Jim didn’t get ANYTHING!” Whoa, I thought and asked, “Was this before me?” Thinking I surely would remember such a slight. “No. It was in the 18th street house she said. I then asked, “Are you sure it wasn’t John that got no gift?” Yep, in my mind it could have been John. “No, it was Jim”, she said, “Jim needed some clothes for something he was doing at school, so I bought him the clothes and had no money left for his gift.” Mom had her arms folded, and a big frown on her face. Hmm, I don’t recall Jim not getting a gift under the tree, it could be because I was so focused on myself and what I got for Christmas.
So, one of the ruined Christmas’s was with Jim and no gift under the tree, and I just don’t remember Jim not unwrapping a gift or staying in bed that year to avoid breaking into sobs over no gift, Joe, you never got that Erector set, just that cheap plastic substitute, John you must have escaped the wrath, maybe. Any way I look at it, we never cried over not receiving a toy we just had to have because we never thought that way, the only one who cried on Christmas was Mom.”
In our shared recollections we agreed that Christmas was never ruined because of presents we didn’t receive. It had more to do with our mother’s expectations that could never be met. The fact that it was possible to “ruin” Christmas made it all the more probable that Christmas would be ruined.
But there’s a different slant on the question, “Are you for Christmas?” And that is, “Now that God is in the world through the Spirit of Christ, not just one day of the year but every day, how do live with that reality?”
In the story of Jesus as told by storyteller Luke, in order to get to Jesus, you have to go through John the Baptist. The typical Nativity scene depicts characters gathered around a baby. Shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph, and various animals. There is no guy in a camel skin coat holding eating locusts and honey.
The time and place is fairly well described –
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas”
When the story was first published readers might respond – “I remember that year. That was a terrible time.” The emperor was involved in a power struggle that saw a lot of people get slaughtered, the governor was heavy handed and violent, Herod was corrupt, Philip was corrupt, Lysanias was corrupt, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas were dishonest and greedy lackeys of the political system. Those were not good times all around.
Yet as the story goes, “The word of God came…” And that says something very important about the story. The word of God can come into the story at any time. The word of God is always coming into the story, then as now.
The word of God came to this obscure figure out in the wilderness. The wilderness by comparison to the emperor’s throne and all the seats of power emanating from it. The wilderness where life is hard to sustain, where nothing much of importance happens, where nothing much matters.
But that says something about the word of God – God’s way of coming into the world – then as now. God didn’t need to get the emperor’s attention. God didn’t need to get the governor and kings and various religious court clowns on side.
The word came into the wilderness through a wandering prophet who gave voice to the truth – his message was quite simple really. He said people need to repent from their sins and find God’s forgiveness.
Sin – traditionally we think of it as breaking the rules – doing bad things – being somehow unacceptable to God. But that’s not all there is.
When John was out there preaching about sin his audience was made up of everyday people – workers, farmers, shepherds, common folk. But his message was directed at a wider audience – the emperor, the governor, the princes and rulers and religious court clowns. The everyday people might have lifted him to their shoulders and sang “for he’s a jolly good fellow.” The powers that be threw him in a dungeon and cut off his head.
Repent! he cried out.
Turn away from refusing the possibility that God offers to us and through us to the world.
Turn away from creating idols and then fighting to defend them.
Turn away from refusing to see the vulnerable face of your sister and brother and from failing to share your own.
Turn away from systems of oppression and the lies that keep them going.
Turn away from injustice that is powered by self-serving ways.
Turn away from thinking that more is better.
Turn away from all the lies:
Lies that deny us of our full humanity;
Lies that say life is a battle to win or lose;
Lies that have taught us self-blame for our suffering;
Lies that reinforce guilt and shame by reminding us constantly we are sinners;
Lies that have denied that the image of God is in every person.
And remember that when the prophet Isaiah said –
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
He was announcing that the way things are, are not the way things need always be.
I looked through some old pictures of me taken at various Christmas times – me holding the toys I received – me sitting on my new bike – me in my pedal-car fire truck. Smiling and happy in them all. I sent them to my siblings in an email along with the message – “Attached are a few pictures of me with my disappointing toys from Christmases past. Take a close look and you can see how traumatized for life I am in these shots. I keep these as a reminder of the immense pain I suffered. Pain I will carry to my grave.” Christmas was never ruined.
To get to Jesus we have to go through John the Baptist – who prepared the way by naming the corrupt political and religious powers and denied their legitimacy. John paid the price for that; as did Jesus on the cross. God wrapped it all together in resurrection and life.
So, what are we doing for Christmas, now that God’s word has come into the world through the Spirit of Christ? Amen.