Christmas Story – The Sequel
At the beginning of December, a columnist in the Toronto a newspaper wrote an article entitled, “All I want for Christmas is for it to be over.” It was written tongue in cheek, a week later he wrote that he was astounded at the amount of mail he had received with people agreeing with him. Well those people have their wish today.
The time after Christmas seems quite anti-climatic after all of the events and preparations we made for the big day. Nothing beats the expectancy, excitement and anticipation of before Christmas. Now we have the season of crumpled wrapping paper, overstuffed trash cans, those visits you didn’t get in before Christmas because of the weather. Today we’re still singing songs about the advent of the baby Jesus, but many of us our thinking about the advent of the Visa bill in January.
I have entitled this morning’s sermon, “Christmas Story – The Sequel.” Hollywood knows about the sequel. I watched Star Wars: the Last Jedi, the eighth Star Wars Movie, I can’t wait for Star Trek Challenger to resume in the new year, Dr. Who begins again with the good doctor being a woman and, just to round out my television viewing, Dallas is back. Return of familiar characters to continue the plot which was begun in the first movie or TV show. Today, the Sunday after Christmas always presents a challenge for the preacher. What is there to say in the sequel to Christmas after all has been sung and said at Christmas? What do we do now?
This morning’s gospel lesson provides an unusual snippet from Jesus’ childhood. Here is one of the few instances in which ordinary domestic life is portrayed in the gospels. I can tell you at the outset that the theological purpose of this story is to present Jesus as the fulfilment of the promises of God to Israel, as Simeon’s song makes clear. But there is something else happening here. We see the holy family returning to the ordinary and mundane after the dramatic events of the Christmas story. We read, “They returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God upon him.”
This story is like coming home from vacation. When all is said and done, isn’t there a little part of you that is glad to get back to the routine and familiarity of your life? One of the things that had to happen was that the baby had to be taken to the temple and the family had to sacrifice a couple of turtle doves as we required by the Law after the birth of a child in order to dedicate their child to God. It is as they are going into the temple that they meet Simeon and Anna, an old man and an old woman, who are waiting at the ancient temple, clinging to the ancient hopes of Israel. Just in case the reader might think that Jesus has come to start something new, the writer of Luke lets us know at the beginning of the story that Jesus has come, not to overturn centuries of belief and fidelity or to destroy tradition, or to disrupt Israel’s faith, but rather is the fulfilment of the hopes of Israel. He wants us to know that Jesus is in continuity with what has gone on before. Jesus fulfils centuries of prayers of devout people such as Simon and Anna.
Right here we see one of the deepest insights into human faith and spirituality. You see, Luke is telling us that faith is in a continual flux between tradition, what has gone on before, and the new, new challenges and new circumstances which are continually presenting themselves to the believer. In this story of Jesus we see continuity and discontinuity, of change mixed with tradition, intrusion and resumption. Our lives are like that too. We know about change. Our North American society loves change, the new and improved model, the latest fashion, the newest craze. If any of you bought a technological gadget this Christmas time, from a cell phone to a computer, you suddenly found yourself in a world where what you bought today will probably be replaced by something new and supposedly better by this time next year. We also know about tradition. A number of you told me this Christmas that your children were coming home for the holidays and they expected that you would again have certain traditions that you had had when they were children. In the midst of our changing complex lives, we like to have our traditions to hold on to.
Some of you might think of yourselves as a spontaneous persons – able to go with the flow, adapt to the changing circumstances – these are the type of people we are told will be well suited to the new world we are entering into thanks to the economic shifts in our society. Yet, none of us lives without habit, ritual, sameness, pattern and repetition. This is the glue that holds life together. I have noticed that when I go on a trip and get to my room at the hotel, I always go in and unpack my toiletries, I end up placing my toothbrush, tooth paste and comb exactly as they are at home. Being away from home is disorienting enough without knowing where your toothbrush is. Even when I am alone in a double or queen-size bed, I don’t sleep in the middle, but I sleep on the right hand side. Such ritual, sameness keeps life manageable. Ritual order life. Our service this morning is ritualized. And lest you think that we are ritualized because we are United Church, Pentecostal and other “free-spirit” churches are just as ritualized as we are. Every religion tends to do certain things over and over again because there are some things that are too important to be left to chance, because certain things are too deep to be able to be done spontaneously.
I heard once again this Christmas the words of Henry Van Dyke: “Are you willing to forget what you have done for others and to remember what others have done for you…to stoop down and consider the needs of little children…If so, then you can keep Christmas, and if you can keep it for a day, why not always?” Van Dyke speaks about keeping Christmas in our hearts every day. How hard though it is to keep the Christmas spirit the rest of the year. In every human life, there are ups and downs, there are always peaks and valleys, sunshine and rain. Our lives have a rhythm. If your religion is only a faith of Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday, it isn’t much, because life has a lot of low times too. It’s great to go up to the temple at Jerusalem. It’s a wonder to be on a mountain top gazing and some great vista. It’s awe inspiring to come to Bethlehem and worship the baby Jesus in the manger, to witness heavens opening or to catch a glimpse of angel’s wings. But life, but faith isn’t always like that.
After Christmas, as we loosen our belts a notch after all of the great fruit cake and sugar cookies of the pre-Christmas drop-ins and the turkey and cranberry – isn’t there a part of you, maybe the most substantial part of you – that will be glad to get back to cornflakes and all of the other regular food?
The Christian faith is not simply about warm spontaneous feelings surging up within you, or about miracles that stupefy the imagination and overwhelm us with their strangeness. I have a friend in Toronto and this is what her faith is: Christmas. She loves to come and be a spectator at the Christmas Eve service, she gets what she calls “warm fuzzies” from Christmas and then nothing for the rest of the year. She hasn’t realized that it is also about keeping the faith, about the habit of prayer, of Bible reading, sometimes of quiet waiting like Simeon and Anna, of going to church on the Sunday after Christmas even though you know it’s more likely that you’ll meet a preacher than an angel.
There is continuity amidst change. The ordinary returns after the extraordinary, and everyday life resumes. Today’s Scriptures assure us that God is with us in the midst of those every day and quite ordinary lives. They tell us that Emmanuel – God with us – is just as much with us in those lives as he was in the manger at Bethlehem. God is with us now – going to church, returning home after the holidays, taking the decorations down off the tree, returning to the office, at the kitchen sink – God is there just as much as at Bethlehem.
Mary and Joseph returned home. Years later, I wonder what they said to each other about the days in Bethlehem and all the strange and exciting occurrences. Monday morning finally came for them. There was Mary busying running a household looking after a baby. There was Joseph out back in his carpenter’s shop finishing off a job. Everyday life had resumed. Nothing, it seems, nothing had changed. Everything was normal, routine, business as usual.
However, as Mary goes about her chores and errands, she is humming a tune. What is it? Is it one of the great anthems the angels sang in Bethlehem? No, it’s an old ancient song, one that has been given new meaning by the events of the past days, a tune taught to her by an old man she met while she and Joseph and the baby were at the temple. Listen to the song, breaking into the great resumption of our everydayness with its promise of grand divine intrusion; let it be our post-Christmas melody:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for my eyes have seen thy salvation….