Dr. Mickey Anders
The Christmas music sets the expectation for a happy, merry, joyful season. Just listen to some of the words we sing each Christmas:
“Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.”
“Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too.”
“Happy Holiday Happy Holiday
While the merry bells keep ringing
May your ev’ry wish come true”
“Have a holly jolly Christmas,
It’s the best time of the year”
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
Most people thrive on all this joy and the happiness. They love the constant refrain on radio and television, in shopping malls and churches, about the happiness of the Christmas season, about getting together with family and friends. Most people manage to overcome the busyness and hassle of the season and genuinely find this to be a “wonderful time of the year.”
But today I want us to give some consideration to those among us who just can’t manage the Christmas spirit. Christmas is not a happy time for everybody.
Shawna Hopkins began her article in Friday’s newspaper with this paragraph:
“It is a bittersweet time in my life. Seeing the lights of my baby’s first Christmas reflected in her wide, wondering eyes makes me smile. And yet I cannot enjoy this special holiday as I should because it is my first Christmas without my Papaw Dan” (Appalachian News-Express, December 14, 2000).
Like Shawna, a lot of people experience Christmas as a blue time. The psychologists and psychiatrists’ offices are usually full around Christmas because of depression.
|A SERMONWRITER SUBSCRIBER SAYS:
“Thank you, thank you, thank you! I trust your work and bless you for being so reliable and faithful!”
I think it was Elvis Presley who popularized the song “Blue Christmas:”
“I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you.
I’ll be so blue thinking about you.
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t mean a thing if you’re not here with me.”
(Words by Jay W. Johnson, PolyGram International Publishing;, Inc., Burbank, CA, 1948)
Perhaps this song gained popularity because it hit a nerve with so many people. All the happiness themes of the Christmas songs remind some people of what they have lost or what they never had.
Just think about some of the people who don’t think this is the happiest time of the year.
First are those like Shawna Hopkins who are overwhelmed by grief over the loss of a loved one. Perhaps it is the first Christmas without the loved one. Perhaps it is an anniversary of a Christmas-time death in years past. Perhaps it is the loneliness of no longer having a beloved spouse to share each day. For some it is the loss of a dear family pet. For these people, grief crowds its way in and spoils all the happiness and cheer.
Others are grieving over broken relationships. The most notable of these would be divorce. I’ve always argued that the church doesn’t need to heap guilt upon those who are going through divorce because they suffer enough without it. Divorced people often find themselves saddened by the breaking of the usual holiday routines. Other families still get together but there is so much tension in the air that they are all relieved when the “family reunion” is over and they won’t have to see each other for another year.
Some people experience anguish over their loneliness. It seems that everybody is supposed to have family over at Christmas. What about those who have no family? I conducted the funeral services this week for our member, Madeline Ramsey, who often said that she had outlived her family and she was ready to celebrate Christmas in heaven.
In fact, there are countless other circumstances which can make this season anything but happy. There are those in ill health, those who are unemployed or facing poverty, or those struggling with depression. All of these circumstances can contribute to a “blue” feeling, which may be made worst by all the expected happiness surrounding them.
I believe we are called in the church to at least be understanding of those who are not able to feel the joy of the Christmas season. Perhaps we can even offer help and hope for those experiencing a Blue Christmas. We can acknowledge these friends and offer an acceptance of their sadness. We need to let them know that they are not alone.
Zephaniah is just the sort of prophet to bring good news to those who suffer from Blue Christmas. He was God’s prophet in Judah during the reign of King Josiah. Zephaniah offers a sweeping message of judgment in the first section of this little book, but then he moves from destruction to healing.The prophet promises suffering, but then he dwells on the message of restoration. He looks beyond the suffering of Judah to the glorious future that God had prepared. Later Jesus would pick up these same themes and paint a dramatic vision of the kingdom of God and our hope for resurrection and eternal life.
Let’s look closely at some of the phrases in today’s text and see if we can find a message of hope for the holidays. First, I want to point out that Zephaniah has some bits of very practical advice for us.
1) Stay busy
Verse 16 says, “Don’t let your hands be weak.”
When we are depressed, we are tempted to be inactive. Depression steals your initiative and you just don’t feel like doing anything. Zephaniah would tell us, “Do not give in to your despair and depression; that will only make it worse. Keep busy with your hands. Go through the motions even when you just feel you are going through the motions.”
I mentioned Madeline Ramsey earlier. At her funeral, I gave an opportunity for people to say a word of testimony about Madeline, and a lot of people had very kind things to say about her. We all noted that she was a very busy lady. People there spoke of some piece of handwork that Madeline had given them. She had learned to ward off depression by staying busy with her hands.
2) Listen to the music
Verse 17 says, “He will rejoice over you with singing.”
John Denver once sang a song that said, “Music paints pictures and often tells stories.” We need to acknowledge the power of music. It has a divine power to communicate God’s love for us.
When we are depressed and blue, we don’t feel like going to Christmas concerts. Go anyway. Put yourself in the place to experience God exulting over you with loud singing.
3) Remember God is in your midst even when you don’t feel like it.
Verse 17 says, “Yahweh, your God, is in the midst of you…. He will rejoice over you with joy.”
Don’t let your emotions fool you. Your feelings tell you that you are alone and destroyed; that nobody cares and that God is far away from you. Heed the message of Zephaniah – “The Lord God is in your midst…”
When you feel blue, acknowledge those feelings but don’t let them convince you that everything is a bad as your feelings say they are.
Remember that life is lived forward but understood backward. When you look back on this time, you will see that God WAS there all along. Perhaps you were too depressed to see it, but God is always there “in your midst,” and Zephaniah adds, “rejoicing over you!”
4) Let the shame go.
Verse 19 says, “I will give them praise and honor, whose shame has been in all the earth.”
Many people suffer from shame at Christmas. Sometimes we are ashamed because of our genuine guilt. We have sinned; we have wronged others and perhaps God.
The Bible offers forgiveness for our guilt. We proclaim it every week at the Table – “This is the blood of Christ shared for the forgiveness of your sins.” But shame is often more difficult than guilt.
Shame means guilt, but it also carries with it a sense of dishonor and disgrace. Sometimes we feel dishonor even though we have not committed sin, or even though we have been forgiven of our sins. We may feel that people know too much about us and that they think poorly about us. I think we often feel shame when we don’t need to.
People often have great difficulty dealing with shame. We have rituals for many crisis events in the lives of our friends. When someone dies, we take food and attend the funeral. But we don’t have rituals to help our friends cope with shame. They often have to deal with it alone.
The people of Judah experienced shame in Zephaniah’s day because they had been so publicly punished for their sins. Zephaniah offers good news for them – God will change their shame into praise. Christmas offers that same hope for you.
5) God promises restoration and renewal.
Verse 20 says, “When I restore your fortunes.”
When we suffer from a Blue Christmas, we think our lives are a disaster. Zephaniah would tell us, “Don’t let your disappointments destroy you. Don’t dwell on the worst-case scenarios. Worry will only make matters worse.”
A big part of our problem with Christmas is simply nostalgia. We look back with fondness to the rituals and traditions of the past. But God is calling us to the future. Christmas is not really about the past. It is about Christ coming again into your heart this year for restoration and for hope.
Zephaniah did not encourage the people of Judah to look back, as they were so prone to do. Everyone wanted to go back to the glory days of King David. Zephaniah offers a message of hope, but it is decidedly a message for the future. He calls them to new relationships, new visions and a new coming of God’s kingdom. Restoration was his theme, not nostalgia.
God also calls us to the peace that love can bring. Verse 17 says, “He will calm you in his love.”
Love has the power to calm the soul. Don’t let yourself avoid relationships. Allow yourself to experience the love of God and especially the love of God as expressed through God’s people.
A woman, who had recently lost her husband and was facing her first Christmas without him, included in her Christmas cards a letter where she reflected upon some of her thoughts and feelings. She wrote:
“I wonder about many things, things that I have noticed. I wonder, how can it be that my husband, who is dead, continues to live and minister to me and to the children? I wonder, how is it that in the midst of searing heartache, I found God and the power to keep on going? I wonder, how is it that as a result of this tragedy, old friendships are deepened and new friendships formed?”
And then she answered her own questions at the end of the letter by writing, “Christmas is the promise that God can be trusted to meet all our needs. Some say the first Christmas without my husband will be very painful. I’m sure it will be. But without Christmas, my life would be impossible.” (Paul Larsen, PRCL, 12/16/00)
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2000, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.