Blue Christmas

(For the Blue Christmas service at Coal City UMC on Dec. 20, 2017)

     You are all gathered together here this evening because this year's Christmas is not bringing you the joy that it once did.  Perhaps it is because photos taken this year won't include someone very dear to you that they did in previous years; maybe a beloved parent, maybe a sister or brother, or maybe even a child.  Or there might be another reason that Christmas is a difficult time for you; loss of a job or home, a dreaded medical diagnosis, or the passing of an animal companion.  Any number of reasons can turn this season of celebration into a time of mourning and depression.  And I am not going to attempt in any way to minimize that grief, or tell you that you are wrong for experiencing it.  On the contrary, as Christians we are called to share in the grief of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to "mourn with those who mourn", not just to "rejoice with those who rejoice" (Romans 12:15).

     Remember back, how as children, Christmas was an exciting time?  We couldn't wait to pick out a Christmas tree, put up the decorations, and string the lights.  We eagerly waited for that first snow, and had fun going shopping to pick out Christmas cards and gifts.  Of course, there was that list for Santa, and trying to be on our extra good behavior.  And if you went to church, Sunday School, and perhaps even like me, a Christian grade school, you struggled to learn your lines for the Christmas play, and rehearsed Christmas carols.  And there was the time spent with family - Grandma and Grandpa, aunts and uncles, cousins... exchanging presents on Christmas morning, and forgetting all about homework, chores, and everything else other than playing with your new toys, drinking eggnog, and eating Christmas cookies.  Wonderful memories from the past...

     When we became new parents, we tried to make Christmas just as memorable for our children, and enjoyed their anticipation and happiness as much, or even more, as we did our own as children.

     But then something happened; something that drained our enthusiasm and darkened the Christmas lights within us.  The decorations, the music, even the shows on television, all became reminders of our pain, our sadness, our loss.  When someone smiles and says, "Merry Christmas!", we oblige with a smile back and repeat the phrase, but inside it feels as though they punched us in the stomach.  Of course, they meant well enough.  So we bottle up our pain, because we don't want to dampen anyone else's Christmas spirit.  But tonight we don't have to pretend.  Tonight you can cry if you want to.  You can share your grief with your brothers and sisters.  And you can find a caring spirit and understanding heart to share your burden.

     And yes, even pastors can lose some of that Christmas joy.  I will never forget back in 1986, my 93 year old Grandpa, who I called "Opa", was admitted to the hospital with kidney failure.  My two daughters were 3 and 4 years old, and we were getting ready to celebrate Christmas in a week.  There was nothing the doctors could do for Opa, and we knew his time was drawing to a close.  I went to the hospital every evening to visit him, and would read to him from the Bible, even after he had started drifting in and out of consciousness.  On Dec. 20, I accidentally fell asleep on the couch before I had gone for my evening hospital visit.  Visiting hours ended at 8 PM.  I was woken up by the doorbell at 8:20.  I quickly got up and went to the door and opened it.  There was no one there.  I looked down the street and didn't see any movement on the sidewalk, or any cars go by.  Then I looked at the clock.  Oh my!  I missed my hospital visit.  The next morning I discovered that Opa had passed away shortly after 8 o'clock that evening.  It was as if he had waited for me to visit, and when I did not, his spirit stopped at my house to ring the bell and say 'good-bye'.  My failure to visit him that evening has haunted me for every Christmas since then.  I know Opa understood my tiredness as a young mother.  I know he was not mad or hurt, and just rang the bell because he loved me.  But I am sure there are those of you as well that blame yourselves for similar events, even if your intentions were good and your heart was in the right place.

     So how do we get past the pain, the guilt, or the sorrow?  First of all, we don't deny it to ourselves.  We face our grief.  We admit to ourselves that we have painful memories.  We acknowledge that we cannot change the past.  We come to grips with the fact that the "if only"s can never happen... if only I had woken up earlier or never fallen asleep, if only I had done this, said that - or just the opposite, not done this or never said that.  God forgives us for not being perfect.  He loves us in spite of our shortcomings, our failures, our doubts, and even our sins.  He came on that first Christmas in order to redeem us - to not only cleanse us from our sins, but to free us from our guilt and sorrow as well.  While we are in these bodies, living on this imperfect earth, we will never be completely free from them, but the Holy Spirit works within us to give us new life, replace the darkness in our souls with light, and yes, even bring joy to our grieving spirits.  And God has promised that one day, He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.  All these things will be gone forever (see Revelation 21:4).

      While we wait for that promise to be fulfilled, and outward focus will help you to get through the season.  Instead of doing everything possible to avoid the whole season of Christmas, do something to help someone who is struggling even more than yourself.  Help a family in need that is despairing because they cannot purchase gifts for their children.  Visit someone who has no family to share Christmas with.  Volunteer to help with a church, school, or community project.  Adopt a shelter pet.

     And, of course, talk to Jesus.  Pray to him every day and he will gladly listen.  Pour out your heart to him.  He will understand.  Remember, the Bible said "He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.  Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our inquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed."  (Isaiah 53:3-5).

      So give Jesus a chance to heal your broken spirit this evening.  Amen.