Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Christmas Sermon

I have a secret... I don't like Christmas.

Remember when you were a kid and you used to ask your friends, "What's your favorite holiday?" and then you'd quickly qualify it with "...Other than Christmas." I heard myself asking someone that earlier this year and a thought blew threw my mind, "Actually Christmas isn't my favorite holiday." But I quickly identified it as heresy and as soon as it had appeared in my head it was gone.

After some hard speculation this week though, I've decided it's actually the case: Christmas is not my favorite holiday.

Now, Halloween, I love. Yes, the devils' holiday. The holiday some Christians won't even "celebrate" or acknowledge because it's so anti-Jesus or pro-Satan or something. I don't know. The Devil only showed up to one of my Halloween parties and he looked suspiciously like my friend Alysa Little, so quite frankly I'm not confident it was really him.

But I like Halloween. I like Halloween because you get to be creative and dress up and pretend you're someone you're not and everyone knows you're pretending because they're pretending too and it's not the kind of pretending you have to go to therapy over, it's just fun and it makes people laugh. And not only do you have the Princesses and the Super Heroes and the Cartoon characters but you've got the ghosts and ghouls and an occasional hobo. So I like Halloween; it’s well rounded.

But I’m starting to not like Christmas. Because at Christmas many people put up beautiful decorations all over their houses, their offices even sometimes their cars: silver bells and gold balls and red bows and draped greenery and shimmering lights and on and on and on. At my parents’ house each room is color coordinated. There's the gold room where the decorations are predominately gold or gold glitter. The bows are gold, gold stars are wrapped into the garland. It's the gold room. Likewise we have the pink and white room with the softer colored tree ornaments and the white ribbons and the pink poinsettias and the white angel on top of the tree. And finally there is the red room. Nutcrackers, ornaments, bows, ribbons, lights, bears, plants, all are decorated with white lights and red or complimentary to red... things.

And it is beautiful.


Every Christmas in high school and especially in college I would think of any excuse to have a party and invite friends over to see my house. It is breathtaking and homey with a fire in the fireplace and a family that gets along most of the time and cinnamon cider on the stove and delicious little delicacies in the oven...

It was great. And everyone always loved being there even if it was a little cold in that old drafty house.

But for some reason now I almost resent it. While I will appreciate the decorations, the house is beautiful without them. While I know churches work hard on putting together special music or dramas, I'd just as soon stick to a normal Sunday schedule. And my father knows I gave up on picking out "the perfect tree" years ago even when I lived in town and was able to attend that ritualistic family outing.

So why? Why isn't Christmas my favorite holiday anymore?

No, it's not because of commercialization. It's not because we spend a lot of money giving people we love presents. It's not because "the secular world" has taken over our "religious celebration." Please. Look at what we've stolen from them.

I think it's because I hate pretending.

But didn't you just say that Halloween is your favorite holiday because you get to pretend?

Yes. But we all know we're doing it.

What I hate about Christmas is the pretend perfection of it: the effort spent beautifying things that aren't inherently beautiful. The effort spent lighting up and decorating and lives when our souls remain hidden dully in darkness. The dressing up of what's down. I hate pretending when people pretend they aren't pretending. Glowing lights on your house doesn’t always mean you’re glowing on the inside. Finding the tallest fullest tree doesn’t fill up the emptiness in your heart. It makes me feel like I’m faking Christmas cheer.

I've never been one for living like that. When I was six I told my babysitter I hated the hamburger she made me for lunch and I did. It was a big fat hamburger (I evidently recognized I wasn't fond of meat at an early age) cooked and then placed on a slice of raisin bread. Seriously? Who puts a slab of beef on cinnamon raisin bread? Gross. So when she asked me if I liked it, I didn’t even try to pretend. “No,” I said.

This inability to "fake it" has carried with me.

Do you like wearing dresses? No.
Do you like Chemistry? No.
Do you like sexism? No.
Do you think racism is a good thing? No.
Do you think adultery is cool? No.
Do you think the porn industry should get tax breaks? No.
Do you think having a sweet little baby will solve a couple's marital issues? No.
Do you think a little baby Jesus will solve your salvation issue? No. No I don't.

I Don't.

I don't think you can decorate your depravity and sing happy songs about a baby being born and suddenly expect to have meaning in your life!

It's dishonest.

But maybe it’s a means to an end. If we sing about Jesus maybe we’ll start to believe in Jesus. If we dress up in pretty red velvet maybe we’ll start to feel pretty inside. Maybe not.

And so I’m having trouble getting into the carols and the costumes and the lights and the decorations… it feels too dishonest.

Maybe it'd be a little better if we hung hobo ornaments on our tree. Hung pictures of our broken families on our walls. Framed our divorce certificates and put our D+ test scores on the fridge. Maybe we could get a gift for that lump growing in mom's breast. Put an ankle bracelet on the snowman we rolled in our front yard - he's under house arrest, you know.

I hate that we put so much effort into making life beautiful that we miss the absolute ugliness of it.

Perhaps I'm bothered by this because it's actually in the ugliness that I find Jesus. In a feces-splattered, dark and dingy barn we find an exhausted mother and a father cleaning up afterbirth.

Last night on the tea bag I put into my mug full of hot water, I read, "Let things come to you."

"Please," I thought. “Nothing comes to you. You have to work hard for everything. Grades. Promotions. Relationships. Book deals. Physical health and beauty. Nothing comes to us. We have to go and get it.”

Grumpily, I passed my decorated palm plant and slumped down into the couch next to my decorated fake evergreen tree. I felt overwhelmed by the desire to make the world a better place in 2009 when Christmas is over and we look to New Year’s. Unfortunately, I completely lack the confidence to do so though, let alone the know-how. And then I realized I was wrong. Christmas and New Year’s and even Peace on Earth isn’t about that. I was wrong.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Jesus comes to us.

In a world that asks us to give give give to this charity, that organization, this board, that event, this church, that family...
In a world that expects us to work work work for happiness, for success, for money, for normalcy, work to be the best...

What if it's time to receive receive receive?

Stop pretending. Stop pretending that the pretty lights and the purple stoles and the gingerbread houses and the scented candles and the olive wood creches cover the stench of our lives... the stench of a stable.

And the receive the gift, the gift of salvation that started before there was a baby and a virgin, even before there was a prophecy and a people... a savior before there was earth but on earth came into the chaos we call life and lived and laughed and said yes and said no and was put to death for saying to much and came alive again because he had much more to say... a gift of salvation that keeps on speaking into our lives and saving us every single day.

So let it come to you. Stop seeking and working to make things look better this holiday season on your house or in your heart, because Jesus has come to wrap you in the most beautiful gift of all... life…lived honestly…amidst the slime of sin with the sacredness that only comes in receiving the Savior.

Stop. Stop the dreams, the wish lists, the therapy sessions, the home makeovers. Stop trying and start receiving.

The light is already shining...

It’s a difficult concept for a culture that doesn’t take siestas, a culture that takes their iPhones with them on vacation. A culture that pushes students to prep their resumes for college, pushes moms to have the baby and the career all at once, pushes dads to give so much to their family that they spend more time making money than they do making memories.

When resumes require job experience and education and continuing education and field work and community volunteering and the model family…

When are we ever told to receive?
Where does that go on the resume? When is that listed in our job description? When were we graded on that in school?

When are we told to receive, to stop trying, to get the gift of grace?
When are we told to stop praying and volunteering and trying to be the best and to instead receive the best: the baby in a barn, a stable, a cave?

Receive the love of God. Receive the salvation of Christ. Stop fretting for it. Stop working for it. Stop pretending you’re full and start letting go. Release your grip on the Christmas lights and see the stable. Remember what brought Jesus into this world and remember that we’re still waiting for God’s Kingdom to be realized on earth. And when you do that, pause. Let the grief overwhelm you. Let your sin embarrass you. Let yourself go, and be released into the arms of a child, of a Savior.

And hang a picture of that on your Christmas tree.


Patrick said...

Thanks, Ann. Well said.

My wife's least favorite Christmas song is "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." A little too much pressure.

We prefer the second verse of "O Holy Night" - Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name, all oppression shall cease...

Taylor Sandlin said...

Great sermon, Ann. One of this Sunday's lectionary texts is Psalm 126 - verse 5 says, "Those who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy."

We tend to spend a lifetime (and certainly every Christmas)attempting to sow in joy and thereby avoid/deny/ignore every sorrow hoping they'll go away with enough sentimentality. But the promise stands as it was written - sow in tears, reap with joy. Or as Jesus would later put it, "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted."

Anonymous said...

how can you not like wearing dresses?

Todd Crouse said...

Thanks. i miss hearing your sermons (sermonettes?...this one seems full length...) I'm glad when i stop by here and find some posted.

I've been trying to put my finger on why I find almost everything related to christmas nauseating. you pretty much fleshed it out for me. I thought I was just turning into the grinch.

I think i despise most "contemporary christian" music for a lot of the same reasons. It's so disgusting because it typically paints a terribly unrealistic, happy, rosy word-picture over a sub-par music track.

-Or maybe most christians just have really bad taste in music.

anyways. thanks again. you have a unique way of of getting to the bottom of things with your sermons.