This is my first Christmas sermon and I have probably written and deleted the start of it several times. I am writing this in hopes it will reach those online Christians who perhaps cannot get to a church for Christmas or those who perhaps have no inclination to go to church and happen to stumble on this sermon by chance. We live in a day and age where mankind can connect to more people across the world at any other time in the history of our being and yet studies show we are so disconnected from each other that people feel more isolated and lonely now than at any other time in history. It is with that sense of detachment that I choose the topic for my first Christmas sermon, the importance of Christmas now more than ever. And it is in that spirit that I take not the traditional Scriptural texts for my inspiration but something from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.”
One of my favourite types of texts to read is historic biographies, specifically of prophets, ministers, missionaries, holy men, and chaplains. I could lose myself in the story of military chaplain’s for hours. I recently came across the story of a Christmas miracle that I would like to introduce this first Christmas sermon for me. It was Christmas 1969 and a young corporal in the U.S. military was spending his first Christmas away from home, in South Vietnam. To ring in the holidays he had been under constant gun fire, he had lost a large amount of his unit and his brother in law whom he had come over with was M.I.A. Now this corporal, we will call him “Charlie” was alone, he had not seen anyone from his company in days and truthfully he did not even know what day it was-he could only roughly guess it was close to Christmas. Now at this time guerrilla’s in the bush was quite common and so the threat of being captured or killed was very real. Charlie felt someone watching him, he was cold, wet, hungry, exhausted, and was sure he would be dead very soon. Then a jeep came up behind him, Charlie immediately went on the defensive ready to engage the enemy but he heard a voice in the headlights, “Corporal Charles is that you?”; Charlie was immediately taken aback, the voice was American, he crept forward slowly ever wary and fearful his mind was playing tricks on him. The driver approached and he immediately saw the signs of the cross, the American uniform, and the chaplain pins. This large man approached Charlie, he was rugged, large, and a mountain of a human being but Charlie would later describe him as having the most gentle of natures. The chaplain had received the remaining of Charlie’s unit including his brother in law and everyone was worried about Charlie and giving that it was the day before Christmas Eve the commanding officer had given special dispensation to go and do a search for this lost soldier. Charlie found himself amongst a very distraught unit with several other companies as well. They had been decimated, they had lost so many men and even though they were together somewhat they were away from home, not at the USO shows and were living off bare rations in a hollowed out Vietnamese church with candles. The priest had been working with the chaplain and they had tried to create a makeshift home for Christmas, some of the villagers had donated some meagre rations even. Morale was at an all time low and things like sing alongs, games, and storytelling raised spirits only minimally. The chaplain looked at these 70+ beaten boys sitting around the church, huddling by little make shift fires and lying on pews. He knew going up the pulpit for a rousing sermon may not end up working. These boys felt alone at Christmas and so they needed to be unified as a family. Chaplain went around and rounded up and had them sit around a larger campfire just outside the front door of the church, he sat amongst them, and he looked up at the sky, the stars were so beautiful and that text of God putting the stars into place and knowing them by name came into his mind, and it is with that inspiration he began his Christmas sermon, completely improv! Slowly boys started listening, they arose from their stupor and began to hang on his words, contemplating them, and if anyone was looking off into the distance it was not because of boredom or disagreement but because of reflection. The chaplain was not giving an eloquent sermon but just talking in the manner that someone would if they were praying by themselves or talking with a close friend. One soldier recounted that at that moment they did not feel lonely but almost at a spiritual retreat or a camp, they felt connected to each other, the chaplain, and the Being he was talking about. “Charlie” said that the sermon had given many of them hope and truly still does even decades later. Now this was a summary of an anonymous story I read in an article called “Christmas Miracles at the Front” and I am sure I did not do it justice but it sets the tone for the rest of the sermon on how God dispels loneliness particularly at Christmas.
In the Holy Bible we see images of darkness, evil, loneliness, and yet they are always balanced with light, good, comfort, and hope. The Bible is very realistic in the way the human condition is presented but it also presents God as the one who corrects it and brings salvation. I want to look at 3 groups of people who played a part in the Christmas story and the comfort they would have received in their times of loneliness, Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, and the wise men.
Let us look at Mary; Mary came from a peasant background, she was a descendent from the line of David as was Joseph but her father Joachim and Anna were relatively obscure and poor. Nazareth would have been the equivalent of our low socio-economic areas in today’s society. Mary being in a traditional Jewish family would have always been chaperoned by either her father, brothers, uncles, or other women. She would have rarely been alone. But then when the angel Gabriel came to her at the Annunciation the loneliness Mary felt must have been overwhelming. This would have been for several reasons, 1) She was still a child, 13 or 14 maximum she did not have the comprehension or understanding of what was being asked of her, all she had to go on was her faith but she had no concept on who to go for support in this at that moment. She had to know that an unmarried woman with a child could be executed, and also these consequences would extend to her family as well. Even if she claimed she had been raped by a Roman soldier the child would be killed and she would still be viewed as unclean so while it would save her life it would be a lie and still culturally stigmatised; Mary was a pious girl but she was in a no win situation if she tried to do anything but submit to God’s will. But then Gabriel gives her hope that this is of God and the proof lies with Cousin Elizabeth. We know the prophecy is true, Elizabeth is with child at an impossible age and even more this child reacts to the Spirit of God while in the womb informing Elizabeth of what Mary carries as a further reassurance to the Virgin. See these moments of loneliness and fear for us in the grand spectrum of eternity do not make a difference because when these fears, negative anxieties, and whispers of the enemy are quickly in God’s time countered with reassurance in real and legitimate form.
But then there is another person in this equation, very much the forgotten player in the Holy family; Jesus’ foster father, Joseph. Joseph would have been older than Mary, some scholars say as old as late 30’s; he would have been a distant relative of Mary because Jewish custom dictated that a potential husband should be someone relatively connected in lineage to the family. Joseph had just been told about what has happened, the feelings he must have experienced, the obvious one being betrayal, he must have felt isolated that this happened, because while he would not be punished he would have been isolated from the community and shunned for letting this happen. He would have been living with Mary’s family but would have had to move out since the contract was null and void. Truly he would have felt rejected and outside God’s favour for such a thing to happen. Yet again the Lord comes swiftly with reassurance in the angel reassuring Joseph, not only is this all true but God wants you to raise the boy. Joseph goes from shock, hurt, and despair at this time to reassurance, blessing, and honour. So he takes Mary into his house they have just each other to rely on and God. See ladies and gentlemen God often brings comfort to us in different ways, it often times is a friend, neighbour, or even a stranger to bring us Christmas cheer. Other times it can be an email or note arriving to us at our lowest point. See in the gospels of Luke and Matthew it gives us the facts but negates a person’s mental status and emotions at this time. I believe this is a benefit for two reasons: 1) it allows us to empathise and relate to the characters and 2) the writer does not assume what someone like the Virgin Mary should be feeling, emotions and thoughts are often between you and God, God knows our desires, hopes, and dreams and only He can respond with exactly what we need. Imagine Mary and Joseph leaving Nazareth towards Bethlehem, the whispers of scandal still swirling around about the pregnancy (later in the gospels Jesus is still identified as Joseph’s son so even then in Nazareth He was not recognised for what He was). The Holy Family journeyed through one of the harshest environments on earth, we are not sure if they knew that out of Bethlehem the Saviour would be born and we are not sure where exactly Christ was born but we know there was no room in the inn, even then they felt rejected but there is one thing we must always remember brothers and sisters, when we feel the world is against us (and as Christians they may be) God is always for us and we cannot lose then!
I remember a story of a homeless teen in Montreal, Canada. She had been abused by her foster parents, had been living with a much older boyfriend and had gotten into the drugs and alcohol. She was in a particularly bad way one night; it was miserably cold, too cold for even snow and she was contemplating ending it all. She decided to walk into the river, she did not take anything off, but suddenly she panicked and tried to get out, as the cold filled her body she started to feel hopelessness, she thought it was too late and fell into the depths of sadness and depression. She sank below and it went black. Time seemed to drag on in that black deep but then this teen awoke in a hospital. It was two days after the suicide attempt. She had no recollection of how she got there. She called the nurse and inquired, evidently according to the nurse someone had been boating up the river, noticed the girl and jumped in to save her, warmed her, brought her to the shore and the girl was dipping in and out of consciousness. An ambulance came along with police, they took the girl away, the police questioned the hero and he disappeared into the mist. The girl never found out who her saviour was and the police could not locate his statement. She took it as a gift from God, and got the hint, several years later she is a successful school teacher with a husband and foster kids. She is now the saving grace that God sends to people who are like she once was.
This woman has been a wise guide to many. Now I would like to move onto others who were wise; the wise men in the Bible or the Magi, specifically whose story is located in the Gospel of Matthew. Historians and Biblical scholars agree they were most likely of Persian, Chinese, or Middle Eastern in some way. Since they were tracking the Star of Bethlehem they were also most likely astrologers and since they had a sense of the Son of God being connected with the star and the prophecies behind it they were assumed to be holy men, possibly Zoroaster priests. In the Gospel of Matthew they come sometime after the birth of Christ when He is a young child, most likely a toddler. They followed the star and worshipped Him. I think about the far trek they had to make, truly farther than the shepherds or the Holy Family. I imagine them journeying through desert, jungle, forest, and hostile territory. They may have had servants, and they did have each other but they were feeling a loneliness that the others did not, the loneliness of being away from ones home. They would have been gone for months if not years and there is no guarantee they returned to their homes safely since the journey was so perilous. Yet this was inconsequential for them because the star was so important for their knowledge and the Christ child was important for their knowledge, faith, spirits, and everything else. Meeting Him and Mary was the pinnacle of this pilgrimage of theirs and it made up for the countless months of loneliness, isolation, and separation from all they knew. In this day of easy travel people are often separated from their loved ones at Christmas and it can be a very hard; some people do not mind it, but most often that is from developing a thick skin from it happening multiple times over the years. When I was in China for a year we did not have Christmas off and the employer warned us of this when we were hired and I did not think it would bother me. Being in China many people travelled or went with friends, we saw many Christmas decorations but what stands out to me is being in my own hollowed out apartment in a grungy apartment building. I was in my room with a small stand-up cross on a small desk with a small candle reading the Biblical Christmas stories and listening to carols and Christmas chants. I had just finished a very nice dinner in a restaurant but it was by myself. And I was going to watch some Christmas movies and Skype wit my parents and my then fiancée but as I was reading my Bible at that desk in my pathetic little apartment I was overcome with sadness and absolute emptiness, a sense of being so insignificant that I felt forgotten. And yet I felt a connection, because in that communist country I shared this holy time with millions of underground Christians who many were alone in their own hollowed out hovels; we were connected by the Spirit. I felt so reassured by that, I did not feel empty or cut off from the world I felt God’s hand of peace on me but it made me think about another group of people who would have felt isolated and empty and cut off from the world; the shepherds.
The Annunciation to the Shepherds is one of the most memorable stories in the Bible found in the Gospel of Matthew. These shepherds often inherited their flocks ancestrally. They often lived in caves in the wilderness and many of them lived by themselves for most of their lives. These people were a culture unto themselves; they were not versed in religious or political matters, they were concerned with the seasons, the survival of their families, their flocks, and themselves (in that order most of the time). They had their own oral traditions passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. Truly the Bible is filled with countless references to shepherds and a nomadic lifestyle (Moses, Abraham, and many more). Yet this class of people would have never expected to encounter anything that would have them recorded in the memory of the world for all time. They were not aware of a coming Messiah and they maybe got to the temple or a synagogue occasionally having a rudimentary sense of God and a simple yet pure faith. So when the angel of the Lord announced to them the birth of a Saviour they were the first to worship. They were chosen out of all of humanity. The theme of Jesus’ life was of a Saviour coming for the lowest of the low, the sinner, the sick, not the priests and the rich. It was a theme that began with the shepherds. It was not necessarily that they were geographically close but that the most important event which happened to humanity was being reserved for them. It must have been so overwhelming, a sense of loneliness, isolation, and emptiness that may have possibly occupied their lives replaced by self worth, awe, humility, a sense of God’s love and joy. See people can empathise with the shepherds because they too are lonely and isolated by their lives, the situation they were born into, or their jobs. I knew a woman once who was born the only girl in an all male Muslim family, truly even her mother was gone and so she had no one to guide her in the ways of womanhood, she was to serve her family until she was married in an arrangement organised by her father and then she would serve her husband. This was a large amount of culture being enforced in the name of a religion. Even the girl’s friends seemed to happily follow this and both them, the family, and even the girl could not understand why with every fibre of her body and soul she rejected this culture and teaching. She felt like her fate was decided before she was born and she hoped for an event that would alter her destiny. She encountered this in a born again Christian missionary who visited her village. This nun was accepted into the village due to the Muslim respect for Mary and the clergy. The nun enlisted the assistance of the Muslim girl in setting up community programs. The father did not have an issue with it because it was keeping her away from the secular influence but she was not to go into the church. Yet the wonderful thing about Christ ladies and gentlemen is that the Spirit works from the inside out and the seed was already planted. One night, the girl gave her life to Christ and the plan began to smuggle her out of the village to a safe haven because the penalty for conversion was quite severe. After years of hardship, danger, and abuse the girl escaped her former life and now resides in Europe working with aid agencies. Her, like the shepherds felt this isolation and loneliness from birth and felt like it was beyond possibility to experience a miracle, and yet it was the greatest miracles that were reserved for the forgotten or untouchables of society. The greatest miracles can be and are meant for the single mother raising 4 kids on her own, the senior citizen who is alone on Christmas, the international student who is separated from country and kin.
Mary and Joseph experienced loneliness and isolation from actions initiated by others. The wise men experienced loneliness and isolation from country and home due to a call of God. And the shepherds experienced these feelings from birth and the lives they were born into. This Christmas you may be alone and dismayed by actions outside your control, those that you initiated, or those initiated by others. What you need to know is that whatever your circumstance God loves you! There are countless church services happening right now, there are outreach programs, and community programs to connect you to a spiritual family. The baby Christ was born into poverty and an enslaved people and yet He had people there to support Him, including God the Father! You have God there with you right now, and people are out there who want to make that connection with you this Christmas. This is the central tenant of Christ’s message. God loves you, Christ is here for you and you are never alone! “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”Luke 2:10-15. In this day and age when we can be connected to people more than at any time in human history we are disconnected more more than ever and yet God remains, He will never leave us nor forsake us, we are never alone, never really alone. Merry Christmas, may the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ whose nativity we remember this day grant you the peace of God, the joy of salvation and the sense of belonging and fulfilment that only He can bring.