Friday, December 14, 2012

Sowing Tears this Christmas

This is a sermon I preached this past Wednesday night at my church's annual Service of Consolation, a worship service for those who are grieving during the holidays. In light of today's news, I thought it might appropriate to share with a larger audience.

Sowing Tears, Reaping Joy

A sermon from Psalm 126

When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion,
we were like men who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
He who goes out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with him.

The now classic A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with the title character sitting by a wall watching snowflakes fall from the sky. As his best friend Linus approaches, Charlie Brown turns to him and confesses, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.” Whether we’d like to admit it or not, Charlie Brown speaks for a lot of us. Many of us find ourselves each Christmas feeling depressed.

I have a friend who has a little bit of Charlie Brown in her. She says that her least favorite Christmas song is “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” She says the song puts just a little too much pressure on the season for her taste. She says that her Christmases have difficulty living up to all the hype. Maybe that’s the problem – the hype. And I don’t mean here, primarily the non-Christian, commercialized hype that we so often complain about – although that doesn’t help either. I mean the good hearted, old fashioned, Christian hype surrounding the season. The kind we pile on year after year after year. The hype that talks all about the joy of Christmas and nothing about the sorrow. The hype that makes it seem as if we can have peace without pain, hope without patience, love without vulnerability

What I mean is this. It is right and good to stand in awe of the Christmas story. To take time each year and pause at the manger scene, standing with the shepherds mouths agape. In such moments we rightly declare with the Psalmist, “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. . . . The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” But when we stop the story there in the manger, as we often do, we turn the story from one of good news into holy hype ignoring the fact that neither Matthew nor Luke report that Jesus was born and then immediately move to “and they all lived happily ever after.” This baby that we fawn over and worship didn’t stay a babe in the manger. He grew up to be called a “Man of Sorrows.” Even before then, his childhood was marked by many tears. For all the hype surrounding the first advent, it only takes twelve verses in the second chapter of Matthew for the greatest story ever told to turn horrific:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (Matthew 2:16-18).

You won’t find that scene on too many Christmas ornaments or sung about in too many Christmas cantatas. We’ve made Bethlehem so sentimental that we’ve sanitized it. That’s too bad. For the world we live in looks a lot more like the Bible’s version of Bethlehem than Hallmark’s. There are still a lot of tears in the world today. Tears that can’t be wiped away by simply watching a few Christmas movies. A sanitized Bethlehem won’t do because we need more than a sentimental gospel that fills us with only temporary warmth. We need a gospel that will save. We need a gospel that’s light in the darkness. We need a gospel that can be sown in tears, so that we might one day reap salvation with songs of joy.

Perhaps the reason so many of us have been disappointed with the Christmas story is because we’ve been sold the wrong story, or at least been misled as to what part of the story we are presently in. We keep thinking that happily ever after has already arrived. As a result, we keep being tempted to despair every time evil raises its ugly head. But Christmas, at least the Christmas in the Bible was never meant to be the end of the story. Christmas is the beginning of the story. To borrow from the Psalmist's agricultural image, Christ’s first advent isn’t meant to be viewed as harvest time, but as spring planting. And as our passage makes clear today, spring planting isn’t always a happy time. Think about the farmer. When he sows there is no sign of life. Everything looks dead. If we didn't know better, everything looks hopeless. But looks can be deceiving. That seed, buried in the ground, contains life – and the one who waits for it, even through the tears, shall one day witness life break through.

That in a word is the Christmas story. It’s God sticking his finger into the sorrows of this world and dropping Jesus right in our midst. To walk our sod and breath our air (to borrow a phrase from Chris Rice) - to be one with us, in all our sorrows and grief, that he might bring us new life. On the cross, like a seed splitting in half, Jesus reminds us that their will be no easy victories for love in this world. As he’s covered up in the grave, like the seed in the field, it looked like the end. But it wasn’t the end, was it? The shoot of Jesse sprung forth and the resurrection gave us the first sign that new life was on the way.

St. Paul would use a similar image in his letter to the Corinthians, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. . . . But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” This is not hype – it’s hope. Hope that even though we die, yet shall we live. Hope that the wrong, though strong, will not prevail. Hope to keep facing the sorrows of this world without giving way to despair. Hope that motivates us to keep engaging the world in its most broken places. Loving its most unlovable people. True hope doesn't avoid grief, it embraces it. For grief reminds us that this world is not yet as it should be. True hope, then keeps on sowing in tears, yes, even at Christmas, trusting that thanks to Jesus we shall one day reap with songs of joy.

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