simple gifts: Christmas music … deep longing

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:8-13; Mark 1:1-8

In our worship theme this year,
we’re suggesting that some of the various simple gifts of the season
(like Christmas lights and Christmas food) offer us insight
into the truth of the season—which, given the season,
is to say they offer us insight into the truth of God and God with us—
us in relationship with God.
So this morning, I invite you to consider Christmas music in a sermon with three verses.

Verse one.
Some of you, perhaps in no small part because we’re in church,
will think of the great carols of the season—
or some of the classical religiously themed music—“The Messiah.”
But most of you, I dare say, asked (more randomly) to think about Christmas music
would think of the music you listen to at home,
the music you load onto your computer, set Pandora or Spotify to play—
some of what you hear on FM 101.9, at the mall
or on the merry-go-round at Dutch Winter Wonderland.
For me, ideally, that’s not anything about hippopotamuses, Christmas shoeses
or grandmothers strange and unfortunate encounters with reindeerses.
I gravitate to the classics: Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby
(except for that unfortunate “Mele Kalikimaka” song—bad choice, Bing),
Dinah Shore, Rosemary Clooney.

“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,”
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,”
“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,”
“Winter Wonderland,” “Jingle Bells,” “Sleighride.”

Music to so anticipate.
And in our household, not to break out until after Thanksgiving!
So the anticipation builds.
Now is it the music of celebration?
Well, absolutely. it’s Christmas music! There’s not much more celebrative than that.
But it’s also, listening carefully, a music that articulates a deep longing—
that names a profound dreaming.
Think about it. You sing, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”
amidst the very real possibility that it won’t be, right?
But that dream of snow is potent enough that we all sing “dashing through the snow ….”
Now how many have actually dashed through the snow in a one horse open sleigh?
Not a rhetorical question: how many of us have actually dashed through the snow
in a one horse open sleigh?
For such a powerfully resonant image of the season, that’s not many, is it?

And, so interesting to me, the total ignoring of geographic reality:
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know …”
yeah, when I grew up in Colorado … or Massachusetts—Alaska.
But native Floridians sing this, and children who grew up in Arizona.
We sing in the deep south and in the high desert—
even there singing with some sense that this is how it should be
even though it never has been and presumably never will be.
Sarah, Benjamin and Melita will gather with family on Key West
and might sing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”—
as if—as if what’s true is more real than what’s real! Hmmm.

Now some of it’s just plain silly.
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
let your heart be light.
Next year all our problems will be out of sight.”
Really? Probably not. Nice little bit of escapist fantasy there.
Some of it’s just plain silly,
But within the larger whole of Christmas music
there is a deep longing not as simple as escapist fantasy—
but a deep longing for an alternative reality
with a corresponding commitment to keep the dream alive.
(“I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams”),
And so while within the reality we know, there’s a sadness—
a melancholy as we long for what we used to know—
what we wish were—what we dream …
yet somehow (and here’s the mystery—the beauty—
the wonder of it all)—somehow, the season takes that melancholy
and it becomes itself part of the celebration. Now that’s a trick!
The longing is so rich, it transcends itself to some degree.
The longing is so deep it can handle/it can absorb its own lack of fulfillment.
Statistically I think we’re in the 5-10% chance of having a white Christmas
(90-95% not likely), but that’s not going to stop us from dreaming, is it?
And knowing that’s how we want it to be—
that that’s our image of how it should be, nothing’s going to change that.

See if I were going to tell a story—a story that was true
it would be a tale of those who live together and who love each other.
From the truth of that context, I would draw a strand of sadness—
pull it out taut,
then weave it back into the fabric and tie it off.

What makes up that strand’s a different circumstance
or a different set of circumstances for each person—
different circumstances in each telling of the tale of what’s true.
In this telling of it, trust betrayed. In that one, a conversation not had.
It can, in fact, be words spoken or unspoken,
a blessing not offered, forgiveness withheld, anger held onto.
It can be, a particular circumstance:
for them a child they so want but cannot have;
for them a child they have but do not want.
A job lost—a hope—a dream.
It might be something that happened long ago.
It might be something happening even now.
The betrayal of love. The strangle grip of depression.
It might be stress—economic stress, relational stress.
It might be fear, abuse, addiction, apathy.
It might even be too many Christmases that haven’t lived up to hope and expectation,
and the dream caved in on itself.

Here’s the thing to remember—here’s the lesson implicit deep within Christmas music:
that strand—that strand of sadness is not the story.
Now that strand can become the story.
It’s but one strand within a much larger whole,
but it can, with an inappropriate focus, become the story.
Or it can, more appropriately, be absorbed into the larger story.
Not denied—not ignored, but not given into—not given over to either.

Part of what Christmas music manages to do is take sadness
and absorb it into a greater vision of hope and joy.
And sadness—melancholy—incompleteness—longing—
dreaming—hoping is simply part of the story—part of the story—
not the story. I might not be home for Christmas,
but it’s still Christmas and I have a sense of Christmas,
and I have a sense of home—what home is—
what I want it to be. And one day ….
So merry Christmas.

Verse two.
There’s the whole Santa Claus body of music.
And a substantial body that is!

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,”
“Up on the Housetop,” “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,”
“Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,”
the Santa verse of “The Christmas Song”:

“They know that Santa’s on his way.
He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.
And every mother’s child is gonna spy
to see if reindeer really know how to fly.”

Taking such great delight in the fantastic tale—
such joy in the details of the tale—
the so very familiar, so very beloved details
that you lovingly repeat over and over again, year after year:
the names of the reindeer, the description of Santa,
the quiet house in which no one was stirring, not even a mouse.

It’s true many of us struggle with the commercialization of the season—
the material emphasis made manifest in many ways in Santa Claus—
great red rotund giver of stuff.

The predominant message of our culture, after all,
speaking particularly loudly at this time of the year—
the predominant message of our culture,
inseparable now from our economy and its message—
wisely—cleverly—deviously acknowledges that strand of sadness we noted before.
“Okay. There’s this strand of sadness—of incompleteness—
some sense that all is not as it should be, and—and
if you wear the right clothes … if you drive the right car …
if you pop the right pill … if you smell like this or like that, but not like that …
if you drink this—or drink here … eat this or eat there …
if your house looks like this and your yard looks like that,
if you have these toys and those shoes …
use the right laundry detergent, dish soap …
if you shop in the right stores—if you live the accessorized life—
if you buy …, then you won’t be sad anymore.

Makes it a cheap kind of sadness, actually,
even if it’s a Lexus with a ribbon on it you buy
(I must say I find that commercial almost anachronistically offensive this year!).

Persevere in purchasing and great will be your joy.
It will make your story the one you wish it were.
And we know that’s not true. We know that’s not true.
And yet—and yet! What if—what if that’s what it took?
What if that’s all it took? Just one more thing—that thing.
And there’s the power.

The church comes along and says—or is supposed to say,
“Nothing you buy will change that sadness.
In fact, nothing you do will change that.
It’s part of who you are.
Not even God will change that.
It’s a fact of your existence.
Now you can try and deny it. You can try and ignore it.
But it points to a depth deeper than we ought be able to know.
There’s something of God in that sadness—in that sense of incompleteness—
in that unsettled it’s supposed to be different.
If you try and bury that depth in stuff, you cheapen yourself—
very expensively sometimes!”

And so it’s good to remember that even the jolly red clad elf of the great north
traces his lineage back to a saint of the church:
saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Lycia (in modern day Turkey).
You may or may not remember, Bible scholars that you are, Paul, imprisoned,
making his way by ship to Italy, puts in in Myra in Lycia (Acts 27:5).
Some three hundred years later, in Myra,
Bishop Nicholas earned the reputation of giving gifts,
particularly among the poor—in secret—
so as to not bring shame to anyone receiving.

In one story, a poor man had three daughters, but could afford no dowry for them—
which meant their forseeable future was not one we would wish on anyone.
St. Nicholas, so the story goes, threw a bag of coins
through an open window for each daughter—
or one bag per night for three nights—
or one bag a year for three years.
In one version, the man kept watch by night—that third night (or third year)
by the open window—to see what to his wondering eyes might appear,
and St. Nicholas, seeing the man a-watching,
threw the last bag of coins down the chimney.
In one story, the daughter had just washed her stockings,
hung them by the chimney with care to dry
and the coins fell down the chimney into her stocking!
And the Dutch transliteration of St. Nicholas, SinterniklassSinterklass,
comprises the etymology of Santa Claus.

So let me suggest that embedded in the fantastic tale
and all the songs of Santa lies the profound truth
of one who exists to give—who works all year to give things away—
who looks to the least fortunate among us with an eye to transformation—
who lives in the way of God—not Madison Avenue—
who lives in the way of God—one to whom it matters how we live—
not just whether we’re naughty or nice, but whether we’re good.
My friend Kyle Matthews, sings what ought be a Christmas classic:
“Everything that Santa knows, he learned from Jesus—
like how the finest gifts we give we give in secret—
like sneaking in on Christmas Eve in ways we’d never dream—
putting little children first.
Everything that Santa knows he learned from Jesus long ago.”

So merry Christmas.

Verse three.
Back to where we started with the carols of Christmas.
Because so much of the deep truth we find
implicitly suggested in the songs of the season,
in the songs of Santa Claus—so much of that deep truth
is made so very much more explicit in the hymns.
We sing “O Come, O Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”
Hear the longing? Not just the words (though it’s certainly the words).
It’s in the music itself too though, isn’t it?
That deep longing—that powerful dreaming—that profound hope
for an alternative reality—for things to be other than they are—
a sadness inherent to what is,
and a belief in the God who consistently gives Self to us
in ever graceful and surprising ways.

We sing “Away in a Manger” (to whatever tune we prefer)
taking such delight in the tale,
reveling in the familiar, beloved details of the wonderful story
lovingly repeated time and time again, year in and year out.
And she wrapped the babe in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.
This the story with all its details in which we locate hope big enough
to see us through our living.
This is the story, we believe, incorporated into our living
that is transformative.

We embrace the quiet, contemplativeness of “Silent Night” celebrating the dawn—
just the dawn—the very beginning—the first hints of redeeming grace—
in the hope and the prayer that the wondrous star would lend its light.

Even within the exuberance of “Joy to the World,”
we ask the earth to receive her king,
and we pray no more to let sins and sorrows grow.

In “O Little Town of Bethlehem”—we find the story always unfolding—
powerful enough to both generate and meet “the hopes and fears of all the years.”
A story powerful enough to sustain itself—
even through questions about its historicity and relevance—
doubts about its authority.
a story of something other than what is—a story of what ought be—
a story toward which we live—into which we live—
a story in which sadness and joy are woven together so deeply,
and yet somehow even within the sadness, the joy predominates.

There’s the carol we sing as benediction during these weeks:
“For lo the days are hastening on, by brophet bard foretold,
when with the ever circling years comes round the age of gold;
when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.”
Not now. Not yet. But it’s coming. It’s in the works.
We haven’t gotten there yet, but we find ourselves
again this Advent/Christmas season—we find ourselves in the story already begun.
We find ourselves in the story unfolding.
For we are those waiting for God, looking for God,
even as we are those naming the presence of God with us,
even as we are God being born into our world each and every day.

The music of the season swells around us and tells us our story.

“And so I’m offering this simple phrase
to kids from one to ninety-two (children of God all).
Although it’s been said many times many ways
merry Christmas to you.”

It’s the third Sunday of Advent. God’s simple gifts surround us—
promising to fulfill our being.

“Let it be, let it be, let it be!”

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