July 24, 2016: "Christmas In July"
Why are we celebrating Christmas in July? Why are we singing Christmas carols today, in the hottest season of the year, when we usually sing them bundled up against the cold? What, if anything, will remembering the story of our salvation, from disobedience to redemption, do for us today? Isn’t Christmas just a time of year?
Allow me to begin answering these questions with a story.
There is a song that we hear every year at Christmas that goes like this: “Yes, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute…For we’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older…we need a little Christmas now.” Angela Lansbury first preformed this song in 1966 as part of George Herman’s Broadway musical, Mame. The world was an interesting place in 1966, to say the least. The Vietnam war at its half-way mark and the US had about 500,000 troops spread out over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; protests in the United States against the war were particularly fierce that year. In 1966 four Germans dug under the Berlin wall in desperation to gain freedom from East Germany. In 1966 India was suffering from the worst famine in 20 years, and in 1966 French President, Charles DeGaulle, withdrew France’s membership in NATO to cozy up to the USSR. In the United States there were significant race riots in Baltimore, Atlanta, and San Fransisco, and a Supreme Court decision in 1966 led to the mandate of reading Miranda Rights to anyone under arrest, after the court heard a case riddled with racism and corruption. 1966 was also the year that the mini-skirt came into fashion, when Star Trek first aired on TV, and when Pampers invented the first disposable diaper. It was into this that Lansbury sang, “We need a little Christmas now.”
Fast-forward 60 years to 2016, and notice with me just how much of the political and cultural climate of 1966 is still present in the world. The world is again engaged in a great war, or great wars, in foreign lands and at home; the cost of this warfare, while astronomically high in dollars, has been astronomically high in human life and on our collective emotional well-being. People aren’t digging under walls as much anymore, but hundreds, even thousands, are boarding ships in order to escape religious and ethnic persecution—many are dying at sea because the boats that are made to carry 50-60 people are collapsing with 300 and 400 on board. Back then it was Baltimore, Atlanta, and San Fransisco—now it is Baltimore again, Baton Rogue, Dallas, Minneapolis, Ferguson, and Cleveland that are torn apart by violence over race and the devaluing of life on all sides. In a lot of ways I wish Star Trek was still on primetime, instead of the half-truth, shock-inducing, anything-goes programming that is on now.
When Angela Lansbury sang, “We need a little Christmas now,” in 1966 it was powerful and she meant it. And because today we are still combating evil, because we are still trying to escape and erase persecution and violence, because we still have not learned to put our weapons down and take up instruments of peace, we need a little Christmas now, too. That is why we are celebrating Christmas in July.
If I had distill the message of Christmas down to one phrase, it would be this: “Do not be afraid.” This is what the angel said to Zechariah when the angel announced to him that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son named John. This is what an angel said to Joseph, when it was discovered that Mary was pregnant before the two had come together as one. Joseph had planned to dismiss Mary quietly in order to spare her any public embarrassment, but the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God…you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the son of the Most High…”. And as the shepherds covered their heads in fear on the night that Christ was born, the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.
This is a refrain that we hear throughout the Scriptures, spoken to Noah when he was told to build an ark, to Joshua and David as they led the people of Israel; it was spoken to Isaiah and Ezekiel as they began their prophetic preaching to God’s people, and it was spoken to Ruth and Naomi, Deborah and Miriam, as they faced insurmountable opposition. Yet, this refrain—“Do not be afraid”—is nowhere more potent, more comforting, more worthy of our attention than when it is spoken in the Christmas story.
You see, Christmas makes a bold claim: God is with us, not just in theory, but actually with us. In Jesus Christ, that child wrapped in bands and cloth and lying in a manger, God took on flesh, our flesh. It was a divinely pivotal moment in God’s history with humanity, because God came down to be with us, to walk with us and talk with us, to breath the air we breath, to laugh, to cry, to make friends and endure suffering. There has never been a time when God was not deeply interested in who and what we are and what this world is, and Christmas proves this and takes it even further. When the time was right, God was born into the world in Jesus Christ, and from that moment forward we can have confidence that God knows. We can be confident that God knows what its like to be human, the height of it and the depth, and everything in between. We can be confident that God knows what it is like to struggle and strive for authentic relationships, to be held tightly by some and pushed away by others. We can be confident that God knows and understands our basic need for love, for embrace, for food and clothing and nurturing care. We can be confident that God knows what it is like to be wrongly accused, turned on by those who appeared to be most devoted, and subjected to horrible pain and death. We can be confident that in Jesus Christ—his birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection—God knows.
And because we have this confidence that God knows, we do not have to be afraid. We do not have to be afraid because if God is powerful and compassionate enough to take on our flesh and live among us, God is powerful and compassionate enough to soothe the wounds of war and dismantle systems of violence. We do not have to be afraid because in Jesus Christ God tore down the walls of division that stand between us: walls that are erected by fear of the other, by fear of the unknown, by fear of our frailty and mortality. We do not have to be afraid because God has given us a great gift in the Holy Spirit, this wild and unpredictable force of creativity, inspiration, and holiness, that pushes us at each moment to lives of peace, justice, unity, and purity. We do not have to be afraid when we sin and fall short of God’s glory, because God’s forgiveness was won for us unconditionally by Jesus Christ. We do not have to be afraid that life is meaningless or just a string of odd coincidences, because we are all created in God’s image and every day we are alive is held in the loving hands of God. We do not have to be afraid of hunger, of persecution, of evil, or even of death, because it is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom and much, much more. We do not have to be afraid, God is with us; at Christmas, as the seasons change one to the other, as the world moves, and as darkness is overtaken by the Light that no darkness can overcome. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.
In the blistering heat of the summer of 1945, Bob Wells and Mel Tormé, penned the words to another popular Christmas song in hopes of staying cool with thoughts of the season. They wrote, “And so, I’m offering this simple phrase, to kids from one to ninety-two; although its been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you.” Merry Christmas to each and every one of you…who cares if its July. Christmas is not just a season, it is a way of life. It is a way of life that abandons fear and places full trust in the God who came into this world, not as a conquering hero or a mighty King, but as a baby held in his mother’s arms. Our calling today is to go into the world and live as Christmas people, with hope in our hearts and joy on our lips, as those who bind up the broken hearted, heal the sick, and feed the hungry, because God is with us, Immanuel….today, tomorrow, and forever. So go; go and do not be afraid. Amen.