Simply Christmas: Less Worry, More Hope

Here is the text from this week’s sermon at First Presbyterian Church, Bend, Oregon. The sermon texts are Isaiah 40:1-8 and Romans 8: 18-25 Today is the first Sunday of the Advent season, the season of the church year where we wait expectantly for the coming of the Christ child. The story of Mary and Joseph and their harrowing tale of parenthood gets told over and over during the next couple of months. There will be family get-togethers, holiday parties, white elephant gifts, fun, laughter, good tidings, and lots and lots of cheer…or so we’re told. During this time of year, everyone is cheery and happy celebrating the chance to get together with friends and loved ones remembering and being thankful for the year that is drawing to a close…or at least that’s what the ads say.

This season, for many, is a season that is anything but joyful. This season brings up painful memories, adds to already busy lives and ultimately becomes so overwhelming that the thought of doing it again next year seems too much.

A lot of times during this time of year I just feel…stressed. There are certainly moments during this season when I sit back and feel the wonderful spirit of God around me when I sit around a table with my friends and family remembering that BEING with people is what’s important in this or really any season.

It just seems that during this season we are worried about making sure we SEE everybody we can, even if that means not BEING with any of them. During this Advent season we are inviting you to slow down, take a breath, worry less, hope more and experience a simple Christmas.

I know that by saying that some of you are instantly stressed out.

I’m a little stressed out about thinking of simplifying Christmas.

I have a confession to make; one of the main ways that I show love is through gifts. I don’t buy things for a lot of people during the holiday season but the people I do buy for, especially my wife and now my daughter, I tend to go over board. I have a real hard time staying on budget. I’m worried that my family, those around me won’t understand how much I love them and celebrate them in my life if I don’t buy them some thing REALLY expensive.

Now when I say that out loud I realize that just doesn’t make sense. I also look back on the gifts that I have received over the years and the ones that I remember are the ones that took care, were hand made or were re-gifted. The thing that really jumps out at me are the people that were there, the stories that were told around the table and the memories that I have are of who was there not what I got.

Even with that knowledge we still worry that some how we’re not going to live up to some one else’s expectations. We worry that we’re not going to do enough or have enough or give enough. I worry…that somehow if I don’t get my child the “right” present for her learning or my wife the “right” keepsake to let her know that I love her or my parents the “right” picture of their first grandchild that Christmas won’t happen. That the one we’ve waited for, the one we’ve hoped for won’t be born to a teenage mother in a feeding trough. That somehow the birth of Christ is dependent on us.

I am thankful that I am not responsible for the coming of the Christ child.

I am thankful everyday that Jesus Christ is with us constantly, that while I am grass and I will whither and fade, God’s word will live forever and I can trust that even though I didn’t get a new Xbox, God IS with me and with you and with the world, God WILL BE with me and with you and with the world and will be my wife and child and with you and with the world long after I am gone. This is not something that I can see but it is something that I can hope for.

At this time in our country with this economy it often feels like a lot of us are withering or fading away. We feel like we can no longer do the things that we used to we can no longer provide the kind of experiences that we have become accustomed to and sometimes we feel less than, we feel lost, we worry.

The hidden opportunity in that is we can choose how we react to our changing situations. We can choose to hold on to the past, clinging to memories of what used to be or we can open ourselves to new possibilities of what can be. Instead of an iPod or the latest Call of Duty video game maybe you can write your kids a letter telling them how important they are to you.

Our story, our gospel, our history is about life, death and resurrection. We do a pretty good job of living, we are terrified of dying and I’m afraid we don’t trust in the resurrection.

I know in my life there have been times where part of me has died. I am not the same person that I was when I was younger. It was hard to grow up. It was hard to let that part of me go, but the new life that has come is far more than I could have ever imagine.

At this point in our world, in our denomination, our church, in our community many of the things we have been accustomed to are no more. Part of our society is dying, is changing. We can choose to hold on unwilling to change or see the possibilities of the hope of the resurrection. We can choose not to accept that for some there are different ways to interact with God than the way we have accustomed to. Comfort, O Comfort my people, you are forgiven.

I know change is scary especially in a time such as this; a time when we can’t see the other side. I know that the life that we lived has been from God. I know it will help us shape things to come. I hope, I trust that we can be reborn into a new and vibrant life of abundance as we wait patiently for the coming of the Savior to all.

Nazarene Scholar, Dennis Bratcher said, “I think that the true meaning of Christmas is about possibility. It is not the kind of possibility that comes from a confidence in our own skill, knowledge, ability, or a positive mental attitude. It is possibility that comes solely from the fact that God is God, and that he is the kind of God who comes into our own human existence to reveal himself and call us to himself.”

In our Bible reading from Isaiah today we reminded, “the grass withers and the flowers fade but the Word of the Lord lasts forever.” We also know that “in hope we are saved.” God looks down upon us and says, “Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

This may sound a little hokey but those simple words give me a glimmer of hope of possibility; light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t a train but provides warmth that draws me closer and closer to recognizing that God has been…is…and will be with us no matter what.

Even if we don’t get our Christmas cards sent out, if we don’t make that special meal, if we don’t go to every party, if we don’t buy our boss a gift or get your neighbors a fruit cake or you don’t get up the lights etc. etc. etc.

I actually think that the hope of this time of year is much deeper than simply doing less, simply not buying one present, simply holing yourself up in your house and saying, “I don’t have to go to parties or be with people because I’m being more simple.” The hope of this season is the hope that often seems hidden under all the noise that the season can create. The hope for this season lies in the belief that there is a God that bigger than us, bigger than our stress, bigger than our worry. The hope is in a God that is always reaching for us, holding us, guiding us; a God that came to earth in the form of a helpless infant, a God that desires to be in relationship with us, a God that promises that, ultimately in the end, it will be OK even if we can’t see it, even if it seems impossible, even if we feel like we are lost, even if we can’t see God. We trust God is there.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger before he was Pope Benedict XVI said, “Advent is concerned with that very connection between memory and hope which is so necessary to [people]. Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope. The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope.”

This Advent we trust that you will be awakened to the mystery, excitement, and hope that is the coming of the Christ child. You will be transformed by the spirit of possibility of what could be if we continue to love like Jesus. What could be if we worry less about all the extraneous tinsel of this season and open ourselves up to the hope that the Spirit of God will make Godself known to us in the coming of a poor, homeless child, a child who became a man living through the stress and worry that comes with being human, a man who spoke of hope and who lives in all of us, calling us to be open to the warm and challenging embrace of Emmanuel, God with us.

May it be so.