This morning, as is probably commonplace in houses throughout this congregation, we had some Christmas music on, trying to get into the holiday spirit.

About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
December 23, 2020
Ecclesiastes 3:1–11; Luke 2:1–7

As we listened, we talked about our hopes for the upcoming holiday. One of the things the children have been wishing for was snow, of course. The forecast for snow has gotten a little less optimistic in that regard, but they were keeping up hope that we might have a white Christmas. It was about three minutes after this conversation ended that Glen Campbell’s rendition of “Blue Christmas” came on the record—yes, record—we were listening to. Because we’d just had a conversation about a “white Christmas” the children were really curious to know what a “blue Christmas” was. If a “white Christmas” meant snow, what did a “blue Christmas” mean?

Image of blue Christmas ornament, illustration for sermon Blue Christmas, creating a space for lament

We explained to them that a “blue Christmas” is a Christmas when people are feeling sad. “But why would people feel sad at Christmas?” came the follow-up question. And, of course, the answer is that not everyone feels happy at Christmastime. Sometimes the holiday itself reminds us of the people we wish were celebrating it with us. This year, that’s been amplified because we’re kept at a distance from one another, not able to see the people we would normally see, and that can create feelings of sadness. More often, it’s because there are those who have died in the past year, or in the past several years, and we remember painfully their absence.

It’s often a function, too, of the fact that Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. And for many people feeling alienated or left out or just simply feeling the weight of the long nights and short days, or the stress of the season and time of the year, and this year—God knows—everything else that’s happened, it’s not surprising that many of us are feeling “blue” at Christmastime.

No Space for Lament

Now, we as a church—and I don’t mean as St. Matthew’s; I mean the Church together—are not always good about creating space for lament. We’re not always good about creating spaces in which it is okay to be sad. In fact, in some quarters, sadness is viewed with suspicion, as if you’re not quite getting that Christianity is supposed to make you happy.

A former professor of mine, at her own mother’s funeral, was told by one of the fellow mourners that if she’d only had a little more faith she wouldn’t be so sad. That’s spiritual violence by the way and terrible theology. But it’s not uncommonly encountered. Why, we’re supposed to be an Easter people, happy and joyous, Christ is Risen and all is right with the world!

So, when we’re feeling down, not only are we feeling bad, we feel bad that we feel bad. We feel that somehow we’re not doing this Christianity thing right. (There are some scholars who argue that the entire Gospel of Mark was written to let people know that if you’re suffering, you’re actually doing Christianity right.)

But this idea of lament—of holy lament—of sorrow, is hard to find spaces for in the church. We don’t always make space for it.

Look at the example that we set for ourselves. Look at the standard, the bar that we set up for ourselves. We have a Jesus, a Baby Jesus, “no crying he makes.” What kind of child is this? Perhaps that’s what that carol is about—what child is this who’s not crying?

A friend and colleague of mine, the Rev. Kim Capps, the former campus minister at the University of Maryland, made singing the blues an important part of her ministry. She has one blues song that has this lyric:

They said you didn’t make a sound
I don’t think they meant to lie
But, oh, sweet Jesus,
I believe you cried.

Kim Capps, I Believe You Cried

Jesus wept—that’s in the Bible. Jesus weeps at the grave of Lazarus. In the garden, Jesus feels anguish over his impending death. Jesus on the cross cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To imagine that Jesus the infant somehow did not know or experience the sorrow that Jesus the man would know is to miss the point altogether of who this Jesus is.

The Word Become Flesh

See, it’s easy to think that the holiday full of songs like “Joy to the World” and with refrains like “Rejoice!” and “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” leaves aside people who are not feeling that happiness, or who are feeling sad. But it doesn’t. Because if we understand anything about Christmas, we must understand this: it is the celebration of the incarnation of the Word in flesh—that the Word of God, the Son of God should become not an avatar—not one who appears to be human—but becomes flesh, becomes one of us. That means one of us in all our wholeness, in the full range of human experience. In that experience that Ecclesiastes speaks to—that there is a time and a season for every purpose under heaven.

The Word of God made flesh, as one of us. Photo 48003599 ©

Christ becomes a human being and takes on human life—and not just the happy parts. All of it. All of it. Every single aspect of human experience is affirmed by the incarnation. That God is willing to take on our flesh and our being means that God deems our lives worthy. All of it—the joys and the sorrows, the triumph and the laments, the days of summer and the days of winter.

For everything there is a season and the sorrowful parts of life are no less a part of our life than the joyful parts.

And so I want to say this, because we don’t hear it often enough: if you are not feeling happy, if you are mourning, if you are grieving, if you’re feeling sorrowful, you are no further from God than when you are celebrating and happy. In fact, in my theology, you’re probably a little closer to where God is, to that Christ who hangs on the cross and cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It’s holy to be sorrowful. It’s holy to mourn.

Creating a Space

We here tonight will remind ourselves of the grace of God, of the hope that comes with God. But I don’t want anyone to think that I’m saying that because God has done these great things that we shouldn’t feel sorry anymore. Or that you shouldn’t feel sad anymore and that you should feel better.

It’s enough that we feel sorrow—we don’t need to feel sorrow that we feel sorrow. It’s enough to know that even in our tears is water worthy of baptism.

Tonight, we’re creating a space for lament. A space for grief. Not to try to rush us out of it, but to say that even here God dwells. Even here—in fact, in some cases especially in the midst of our brokenness—we encounter the Christ child, the Risen Christ, the one who comes to us in our brokenness, in our living, in our sorrows.

This is the message of Christmas: not that all our sorrows go away, but that when we walk through that darkest valley, the valley of the shadow of death, we are comforted knowing that God—Immanuel—walks beside us.

The Texts

Ecclesiastes 3:1–11

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

Luke 2:1–7 • In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

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