A Blue Christmas
Elvis wasn't the first to lament having a sad Christmas. In the 1800's Longfellow wrote "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day," prior to the Christmas after his son had died. The carol moans, "And in despair I bowed my head, 'There is no peace on earth,' I said, "For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men." After Longfellow, Dolly Parton sang of "A Hard Candy Christmas," and then there is John Lennon's "Happy Christmas," which wonders at the point of it all. Some of you can relate to these carols of sadness at this time of gladness. They seem more in line with what you're feeling then the "ho, ho, hoing" around you. Actually, I think those sad carols fit better with the first Christmas then much of the forced gladness at this time of year.
Consider our text. Consider Joseph engaged to be married to a young woman named Mary. He was a proper gentleman, and she was a proper lady. None of this living together before marriage that is so shamelessly popular in our day. They were engaged. They were to be married within the year. Mary goes off for a 3 month visit to her cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary comes back, and guess what, "She was found to be with Child."
So you know what happened? There was joy; there was happiness because a Child was to be born. They started breaking into carols of sweetness and joy about the mother and Child. Are you kidding? The time before the first Christmas was not like the time before our Christmas. This was an out of wedlock pregnancy. There was an illegitimate Child in Mary's womb. Sadly, I've been involved in enough of these out of wedlock pregnancies to know that there is anything but joy at first. There is shouting and crying; there are accusations and excuses. There is much throwing up of the hands in the air and stomping out of rooms. If it happens at Christmas time, let me tell you, it is a blue, blue Christmas.
Do you see the confusion and turmoil that Joseph had to be in? A bomb had been set off in Joseph's happy life. Nothing would ever be the same again. His bride to be, such a pious, young woman, was months pregnant, and he knew he wasn't the father. O sure, she had some cockamamie story about being pregnant through the Holy Spirit, but that seemed no more likely to him than it would to you.
What's going on in your life? What troubles or sadness or decisions do you have before you? Are they confusing your thoughts and perplexing your mind? Do you think regardless of what you are facing, feeling, or fleeing from that your confusion and turmoil could be worse than Joseph's? Do you feel let down by someone? Joseph did more so. Do you feel God has let you down? Don't you think Joseph felt let down by God? Do you feel like there is no one you can go to for help, for advice, for direction? How do you think Joseph must have felt? He loved Mary. If he divorces her for being unfaithful, she could be cast out of the community; she might even be stoned. Yet, what a wicked thing she had done to him. You know confusion and turmoil like Joseph's. Now you know it was there in the first Christmas.
What are men to do when there is nowhere to turn? Where are women to turn when there is no one to help? I'd like to think that Joseph prayed about this, that he turned to the Lord, but the text doesn't say that. Joseph was so beside himself he didn't pray. You've been that upset before. Thankfully, God breaks into Joseph's life even without him praying. Thankfully, the Lord didn't wait for Joseph to get around to turning to Him. No, the Lord came bursting right into Joseph's life with the answer. He sends an angel to specifically tell Joseph to take Mary to be his wife, and the angel confirms the story about Mary conceiving through the Holy Spirit.
What am I telling you? To look for a dream from God to deliver you from confusion and perplexity? Am I telling you to expect an angel from the Lord to answer all your questions? No, I'm telling you something more comforting and powerful than that. God never leaves His children alone to struggle with life's dilemmas and difficulties, and God has purpose in such things. Like Joseph although we might feel God is taking our lives and throwing up in the air in a jumbled mess, it's not that at all.
God is working in our perplexity and confusion. His working may even be the cause of our perplexity and confusion. Maybe in His grace, God will explain it to you like He did Joseph. Maybe He won't. But I promise you this, if you must come to one and only one decision in order for God's purposes and plans to work, God will make sure you make the right one, even if He has to send an angel to you.
So you're having a blue Christmas; you're not sure the bells on Christmas Day are anything more than hollow sounds; Christmas is nothing more than crowded malls and rich food. None of this can address the real fears you have. You know you're not getting younger. Every day there's a new set of warnings about yet another way to get sick and die. If that's not enough, there is still the terrorist fear lurking in the background. This creeping feeling of fear doesn't seem to match with "tiny tots with their eyes all aglow" waiting for Santa. Elvis singing about a blue Christmas and Dolly with her hard candy Christmas are more in tune with your fears.
Fear was also there at the first Christmas. Joseph knew that he could just keep quiet and go ahead and take Mary as wife. This would make the Child legitimate in the community. This would protect Mary in the community. It would also make him guilty in the eyes of the community. He would either be guilty of fornication, having sex before marriage, or be guilty of being stupid because he was willing to take responsibility for another man's child. If he takes Mary as a wife, he will either be shamed or ridiculed. If you don't think grown men are afraid of such things, you don't know the power of shame or ridicule.
Once more we note that Joseph doesn't go to God in prayer. Once more we note that he doesn't go in search of a helpful rabbi. Joseph suffers like many of you do, in silence. He wrestles on his bed with his fears as you do on your bed with your fears. And do you think the true God in heaven, who spared not His own dearly loved Son for your sake takes any less notice of his children than the movie "God" does of George in "It's a Wonderful Life?" Recall how that movie opens with "God" in heaven noticing how terribly George is struggling. Surely, the God of all grace who cared so very much for fallen mankind that He stepped right into our flesh and blood notices when we are struggling with our fears.
So the Lord in mercy sends an angel in a dream to struggling Joseph. The Lord breaks the barrier between heaven and earth, between holiness and sinfulness, between God and man and speaks to the miserable, fearful Joseph. "You don't need to be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, you'll be laughed at. But all that is so apparently horrible in your life is from Me and for you. You Joseph are worried about being saved from ridicule, from shame, but what I am doing through the Child born of Mary is saving your from your sins."
Ah, but where does God break the barriers down for me? He doesn't speak to me in dreams. He doesn't send angels to me. O yes he does. Angels is the Greek word meaning messenger. He most certainly has sent you a messenger. Me. He has sent me to speak to you about your fears. Your fears originate from the error that there is a great distance between you and God. That God doesn't know or care about your troubles. He doesn't know how things look to you. But I've been sent to tell you that's not true. The Child Mary carried in her womb is none other than Immanuel, which means, "God with us." God is so much with us that He climbed into the same womb we came from, into the same flesh and blood we live in. God is so much with us that He can speak of having us engraved on the palms of His hands, of knowing that our frame is but dust, of collecting our tears in bottles and writing down why each one falls.
Our fears come from feeling we are alone in facing the hard things in life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christ came into our flesh and blood not for the good times but for the hard times. He came to bear our sins, our griefs, our sorrows. He came to shoulder the heavy burden of the law, so that burden might no longer be on us. He came to shoulder the filthy burden of our sins, so those sins might no longer be on us. Now we are to look at our fears with Jesus by our side, and without the "do this" and "don't do that" of the law hanging over our heads or our filthy sins on our backs. Both the Law and our sins has been carried by the Child Mary bore.
In order for our fears to be chased away, God must break the barriers down that make Him seem so far away from us. Our Christmas will remain nothing but blue, hard, or sad unless this happens. That's how Joseph's was until God stepped into His life by means of a angel. How else could Joseph know that the Child Mary mysteriously turned up with was God in flesh and blood? God had to miraculously step into Joseph's life to tell him that God the Son had made the trip. With you and I, it is different. Most of us have known our whole life that God became Man. We've come to know it so well that it almost doesn't mean anything. Let me change that.
God the Son took on your flesh and blood 2,000 years ago. He broke all the barriers down, those between heaven and earth, holiness and sinfulness, God and Man. He is committed now to deal with you by things that touch your flesh and blood. He doesn't send you an angel in a dream that vanishes when you wake. He sends you something better.
He sends you Baptism where a Word of forgiveness, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation touches your body and soul by means of water that you can feel. He sends you Absolution where another body of flesh and blood using God's Word speaks into your very ears the forgiveness that sends your sins away right then and there. You don't have to wonder what God thinks about your sins. He tells you through the mouth of your pastor. And still there's more. The God who descended into your flesh and blood descends today in Bread and Wine feeding you with His Body and Blood for forgiveness, life and salvation. You need not be afraid of a God who would do that for you.
At Christmas sometimes it does feel that blueness, sadness, hardness will prevail. It surely seemed that way at the first Christmas. But blueness, sadness, and hardness then didn't prevent God from coming to redeem us sinners. So don't think that your blue, sad or hard feelings will prevent or slow the blessings of Christmas coming to you. They cover your body in your Baptism; they ring in your ears through the Absolution, and they are in your Body through Communion. This is a blessed, not a blue Christmas. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent IV (12-23-01) Matthew 1:18-25