Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Blue Christmas Sermon: "A Blue Christmas"
My God! My God, why have you left me all alone? Why are you so far from saving me— so far from my anguished groans? 2 My God, I cry out during the day, but you don’t answer; even at nighttime I don’t stop. 3 You are the holy one, enthroned. You are Israel’s praise. 4 Our ancestors trusted you— they trusted you and you rescued them; 5 they cried out to you and they were saved; they trusted you and they weren’t ashamed. (Common English Bible)
“A Blue Christmas,” Psalm 22:1-5
My body is exhausted and spent. My voice, raspy and frail. And my soul had taken a beating like nothing before in my young life. Yet, there I was, standing in front of a couple hundred people who were starting expectantly at me for a sermon, and the microphone had just quit working.
This first weekend of May was originally meant to be one of the happiest of my teenaged years that had experienced really very little inner happiness: after competing for a state championship in speech and debate, I was off to dance the night away with my classmates at my senior prom, followed by preaching in the church I had grown up in that following Sunday morning.
But at 3 am, we got one of those three-in-the-morning phone calls that you never want to have to either make or get. A childhood friend of mine—a son (also coincidentally named Eric) of a longtime family friend—had been in a car accident that night while riding passenger in a car driven far too fast by another friend. He was not wearing a seat belt, was catapulted through the windshield upon impact, and died at the scene almost instantly.
And so, on only couple hours of sleep, running on physical and emotional fumes, I found myself preaching on, of all things, the passage of Jesus proclaiming Himself to be the Good Shepherd in John 10 so soon after having to surrender a friend’s life to a Good Shepherd who felt anything but good in that moment.
And then that microphone died out.
An odd thing happened at that moment, though: the sun had emerged in one of the skylights of the sanctuary roof, and the light came down right upon me where I was standing. The temperature on my skin erupted, I could feel the gooseflesh on my arms practically crackle, and the second wind of energy that I needed just to get through that sermon actually arrived. I have very little recollection of what I actually said that morning, but I am told that it was lovely.
Short of the actual flame and dove coming down from heaven, it felt like I had come as close as I could to experiencing the Pentecost story of Acts 2 itself: light and energy supplied from the heavens, and though I spoke a tongue I no longer understood, I was told by others that they understood and took to heart my sermon perfectly.
It was—and by all means, should have been—the worst weekend in my life when it was supposed to be one of the best. It sounds a bit silly, perhaps, telling you a high school story, but in my nearly thirty years of living, I’ve seen much and experienced much, and this still remains one of the most vivid memories of grief and loss transfigured into my own weakness being met and helped back up.
I say vivid, because it is one of those sorts of memories that you can still recall in high-definition detail. Entire weeks or months can be left on the cutting room floor of your personal recollections, but individual days can raise a hand or a face up above the tide of memories to always be a buoy you see in the swirling, whirling chaos that is the sea of life.
And that is what the idea of Blue Christmas is really all about, to me, anyways. It’s about arriving to a time in the calendar when we look back on the previous year in all its glory and madness.
Sometimes, such auld-lang-syne exercises make us feel good. A lot of the time, though, they emphatically do not. And if they do not, it makes all that much harder to give a rat’s backside about decking the halls and jingling the bells. Everybody else may be enjoying the syrupy saccharine sweetness of the Christmas season, but for you, that may just be a load of painful BS. Christmas is supposed to be nice and pleasant and cheerful, but that doesn’t mean it is, or even has to be.
And here is where my apology to you comes in—my apology to you as a pastor, as a Christian, on behalf of pastors and Christians: when we try to make the story of the Jesus who is about to be born a story all about victory and happy warm fuzzies, we are doing you a soul-sized disservice. We like to preach to you about, say, Jeremiah 29:11, about how the Lord has plans to prosper you, (or about John 10:10, that we are to have life and live it abundantly), and we tend to forget that you don’t always feel like the Lord is prospering you. If anything, it feels like the Lord is trying you and testing you, and all you want is for that demanding test-proctor of a God to declare a ten-minute rest break.
Or maybe God isn’t an overinvolved proctor for you. Maybe it feels like God is under-involved. Maybe you have seen things in your life fall down like the proverbial house of cards, as surely and easily as a Rube Goldberg machine, and you wonder where in the hell is that absentee landlord in the sky. What kind of a psychotic jerk just creates you and then leaves you to fend for yourself against the systemic evils in the world that are always conspiring against you? Poverty, financial insecurity, addiction, domestic violence, sexual assault, God, the list can go on and on.
So we look around, we see these sorts of evils, and here the church, we say, “kyrie eleison,” or, “come, Lord Jesus, come.” But he hasn’t yet, at least not for the second time. The first time, though, well, that was a real doozy.
Because the original Christmas story, there’s nothing sweet and saccharine about it. Some son-of-a-gun innkeeper looks at nine-months-pregnant Mary (and presumably normal-sized Joseph) and says, “Nope, no room for you,” like he’s the room nazi, if Seinfeld had a room nazi. The Savior of humankind is born in the freaking dirt, probably surrounded by an unpleasantly large amount of animal excrement because, well, it’s a barn after all. The manger isn’t coo-worthy, it’s horrible because there is no crib for the Lord like any other child.
And this is the world He is meant to save. Well…at least the circumstances of His birth pretty much proved He had His work cut out for Him.
I probably sound angry to you by this point, and to be completely honest, I think I am, just a little. I felt it as I was writing these words. It’s hard not to feel indignant on behalf of people you know are hurting, people who you just want to be made whole again, but because the world has taken something from them, it probably is going to take a long time, if ever, for that to happen.
I also can’t believe I have gotten this far without talking about the Scripture passage, but this is where it cuts in. Psalm 22 is, like its much more famous sibling the next psalm over, a psalm of David, but unlike the 23rd, Psalm 22 is very much a psalm of lament. And it is still famous in its own right…or, at least, the first verse is. Eli, eli, lama sabacthani. My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?
It is the cry of dereliction that Jesus cries out on the cross.
If Jesus can lament to God, if David can lament to God, then any of us absolutely can as well. It is Biblical to lament to God, it is, dare I say it, right to lament to God.
We talk a lot about laying our burdens at God’s feet because, after all, God’s a big boy, God can handle our burdens. But even with our worst stuff, we still have this sort of neurotic ownership over it, because we still hold onto it in some way. We are the absolute worst at letting go…of anything.
But my hope and prayer for you is that this worship gives you a chance to do exactly that: to let go, even if only for a few minutes, and to let yourself be ministered to, by Scripture, by our music, by prayer, and that you too might experience the wonder and joy of being lifted back up amid your own weakness, as I did that weekend over a decade ago, as I saw my entire life begin to change anew.
Because it is one thing to pull yourself up—you feel proud for having done so. But it is completely different to be pulled up by another—for you will feel loved for having been so.
May you feel loved this Christmas…by our church, by me, but most of all by a God who loves you so freaking much, He sent His son to be born in a barn of dirt and mud and animal crap for you.
None of us would want our children born in such circumstances. But you matter enough to God that God allowed it for you.
It’s really pretty amazing when you stop and think about it.
God loves you. God always has. God always will. It is the promise of the Gospels. It is the promise of the church.
And it is the promise of the birth about to happen on Christmas Day.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson
December 21, 2014