Real Celebration - thrive UMC Official Blog

Real Celebration


For the past two months, we’ve been talking each week about the art of celebration, where we’ve encouraged all of you to make celebration a daily ritual.  The message we’ve shared has been quite simple –and almost childish, really: just find something in your lives to be grateful for –especially the people- and let it inspire joy in you.  Then make a habit out of it.  Let your default-setting be moved toward celebration, however you can. Because, remember!, this life we have is a truly precious and wonderful thing, even when it doesn’t feel like it. And we all get to hold it for only a little while.

Of course, it’s no accident that this focus on celebration will lead us to Christmas, because for so many of us, the unfoldings of the next twenty-four hours will be one of the biggest celebrations of the year.  And not just for us, but it’d be hard to identify another celebration across the whole world that is shared by as many people, with as much intensity and investment, as Christmas.  Indeed, I heard one economist on the radio several years back go so far as to suggest that if it weren’t for the drastic increase in spending that leads up to Christmas, the American economy would likely fall into a depression and collapse.

So it’s a big day –something you already know, because you’ve lived it. You are living it.

Tomorrow, or perhaps some even starting today, so many of our families will gather together to share in this special celebration.  All of our work decorating our homes and preparing meals and our lives, with all of those extra trips to the malls and stores, will culminate in a long-anticipated event.  The Christmas event!

You all know what I’m talking about, don’t you?  The event where children shoot from their beds in the dead of night, like frosted pastries from a toaster.  And they scurry their little feet, thumping impossibly down the hallway with the sound a thousand elephants, which is the only alarm you’ll receive, parents, before the tiny inhabitants of your home throw your bedroom door open and launch themselves from across the room upon your sleep-paralyzed body in such a way as to preclude the possibility of future siblings.  And at this, rudest of all possible awakenings, they continue to bounce upon your tender sensibilities, with their knees of demon-violence and shrieks to match: “Is it time to open presents?  Did Santa come?  Is it Christmas yet? We wanna open presents!  Wake up mommy!  Daddy why are you making that silly noise –are you sick? Let’s go, I wanna see what kind of toys we got! Come on, it’s Christmas!”

Eventually you rouse yourself from the blissful cocoon of blankets so recently desecrated, to hobble down toward the evergreen shrine, Quasimodo in a bathrobe, to behold the children already sorting packages with an efficiency and fervor that would inspire a UPS supervisor.

And I don’t know about all of you, but that’s right when my favorite moment happens: the moment where the packages with their pretty paper lie stacked with reverence; and the children sit on their heels, with knees together before them, on the floor, like angels about to pray.  Except they’re bouncing up and down with a kind of primal ecstasy, waiting for the cue to commence the ritual.  I like to wait just a moment or two, to take it all in, in an effort to prolong it.  It’s the look on their faces that makes it all worth it –the work before and the disappointment that follows. But of course the moment won’t wait.  And it’s only for a flash that their eyes are doubled in size, like they were drawn by a Manga artist.  And their cheeks take up half the real estate of their face, bunching in a way that lets you see every one of their teeth.  At the same time, their eyebrows seem intent on merging with their hairline, quivering at the strain. In short it’s a look of wonder and hope, an anticipation of something magical.

I try to burn that image in my memory, because it’s a picture of purity and holiness for me.

But then, with only a simple nod, these one-second angels go full-savage and start tearing through paper and cardboard like hyenas at a gazelle carcass. Each gift gets a single shriek of thanksgiving before they turn for the next frenzied skinning.  Then, in half the time it took you to drive to a single store, it’s all over, and the house is a spattered crime-scene of packaging.  And as long as a new treasure hasn’t already been broken (a rare occurrence), the kids become occupied with play –both with the toys and also at the game of possession-envy among their sibling-rivals.  At which point, as long as no one’s bleeding, the parents opt for a retreat to coffee or clean-up, or whatever your habit happens to be, and the magic is pretty much over.

Thus concludes the time of our sacred celebration, and we’re forced to once again begin our descent toward the mundane demands of the natural world. A world without flying reindeer, or talking snow-people, or gifts proportionate to our moral character. It’s a world instead with only ordinary wonders, where gifts tend to come with a price-tag and return expectations.  A world unavoidably spattered with cares, and drama, and suffering. A world where good and special things can last for only a little while before the boredom of our daily labors calls us back home once again.

And it’s only after we’ve passed through this moment of descent (and often unspoken disappointment), when or feet are once again firmly planted on the soil that we’re able to ask: was that even close to the thing we were hoping for? Something like ‘magic’? Must we suspend the ordinary order of things before we can find joy?  Do we actually have to escape our own lives in order to truly celebrate?  And if so, what does that have to say about how we celebrate, and what we’re celebrating?

See for yourselves, but I think there’s something of a tragic paradox lurking just below the conscious surface of our greatest annual celebration.  Here we are, firmly entrenched in the scientific age, where humanity’s explorations and investigations of the natural world have generated wonder after wonder in the human soul. And our discoveries have increased the power of our species in ways we can’t even wrap our heads around.  And yet, precisely, now, in the season of this winter festival, we feel mysteriously compelled to suspend all of that.  Suspend the ordinary scientific truths.  Suspend our daily working lifestyles that keep our culture humming.  Suspend everything we think we know about the relationship between personal character and material gain.  It’s like, for just one day, can’t we all just pretend we’re all people who make the ‘nice’ list and deserve good stuff?

Can’t we just pretend that there are still some kind of magical forces at work in our lives, which we don’t yet understand, and that can still leave us in a state of amazement?

Cant’ we all just pretend that our families are a huge blessing that we love spending time with?

Can’t we just pretend there’s something out there to be happy about and celebrate?

As in: sure, sure, the adults all in on in it and we know better; but let’s all smile real big and keep the happy illusion going for the sake of the kids. –As if they’re the ones who can’t be happy without more stuff.  As if they’re the ones who need a boost to their sense of wonder.

Don’t you notice something back-handedly tragic going on in there somewhere?  Somewhere in our celebration of Christmas?

But of course the historical story of Christmas is much different from all that.  The actual event that inspired this tradition of celebration was much more simple, but at the same time, much more profound.  Although we just saw the kids act out one particular rendition of the Christmas event, the original story could be told in only a single line.  And the line is this: one day, God became human and walked among us.

That’s it.  That’s the heart of the whole story.  That’s the event in history that sparked two thousand years of celebration.  That’s the initial inspiration behind the decoration of homes with tinsel and lights, peppermint flavored coffee beverages, and for buying children startling toys, like the ones called “Finger-lings.” [Slide –don’t try to make up a joke about this!].

There we were, humanity living a historical mess, and God joined in.

Now of course we love to tell specific stories about the birth of God, and how he was laid in a manger, accompanied by shepherds, or magi as Matthew would tell us.  Because somehow the image of God as a helpless baby transfixes our imaginations and tempts us toward awe.  But for most of us, it’s hard to recognize God in a baby, especially when it’s someone else’s baby.  Unless maybe it’s head happened to be freakishly glowing, like it is in the byzantine mosaics, or perhaps if somebody we trust points and goes: ‘hey, that baby is God!’  But even then, it’d be mostly just confusing.  Because to us it’d just look like another baby; and parents say crazy stuff about their kids all the time, after all.

I mean, can you imagine someone holding a baby come up to you and announcing that their little bundle of joy is God?

‘Uh, hey Mary, when was the last time you had a nap?’

But in actual, historical time, the vast majority of people didn’t start to see Jesus as God until a long time after he was born. It was an event that happened, but most people missed it at the time.  Only later, after seeing a more complete picture of his whole life could people begin to recognize the divine in the Jesus. Indeed, if it weren’t for his startling resurrection, the God would have gone by unnoticed in the man.  So that history would have likely forgotten about him completely.

And I believe there’s a powerful invitation here that’s again extended to us in the celebration of Christmas.  Every year, we’re called upon again to ask: what was it about the person Jesus that let us see the God within?  Because he totally looked like a person, right?  He walked around and had hair and friends.  He thought stuff, he got angry.  We don’t like to think about it, but he probably had to go to the bathroom.  There’s a Christmas image we don’t try to immortalize –Jesus soiling the manger.  After that, the donkeys definitely didn’t think he was God.  But yet, something else about him, and about his life, led history to proclaim this single human being to be the sole incarnation of the cosmic Creator.

Please don’t forget how insane this idea is.  Especially for Jewish people –this idea of God being a person is still blasphemy.  Among all of the ancient religions that we know of, Judaism is unique in its demand that we make no picture of God. Within this religious perspective, you weren’t even allowed to draw symbols of God, for fear that people might mistake the symbol for the actuality of God.  People even hesitated to speak the word ‘God’ out-loud, lest they risk profaning it. Even when reading the Bible.  So in short, God couldn’t be a person. It was a categorical impossibility.  God is way too big to fit into any kind of body, let alone a self-obsessed human one.  God’s being is so separate and so distinct from our whole material being, that it if God ever came by, even the holiest of humanity couldn’t endure that presence and live.  Because God is holy, and humanity is direly profane.  Unto death.

And yet, strangely, we find people like the disciples of Jesus, and even more startling, a man such as Paul –the self-proclaimed Jew of Jews, end up teaching precisely that.  For Paul, as a Pharisee, rules and doctrine were life.  Scripture was his bread and butter.  So he knew how things were –he knew that a man can’t be God.  But then, sure enough something happens, and he ends up spending at least half of his life traveling all around the world, and getting beaten and arrested, he almost dies in a shipwreck –he’s whipped and rejected –all because of his unrelenting proclamation that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ –the divine Lord.

This morning we’re going to share in the culmination of Paul’s letter to the Jesus-community in Rome.  This is the last teaching he has to share in this letter, before he concludes his letter with greetings and news from a huge long list of people.  We’re picking up in the 15th chapter of Romans. It says this:

15 We who are powerful need to be patient with the weakness of those who don’t have power, and not please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up. Christ didn’t please himself, but, as it is written, The insults of those who insulted you fell on me.[a] Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures. May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice.

So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory.

As we once again approach the celebration of Christmas, I encourage you all to return your focus to the original event that inspired the holy-day.  God became a human, and walked among us.  This is a thing that happened, but we celebrate it still today because at some point, some people saw it.  They experienced it.  They recognized something ineffably divine in Jesus, and it changed them! It changed their lives, dramatically.  It shifted the whole course of human history.  And Paul describes it here in two words: ‘endurance’ and ‘encouragement.’  Other people of the same time called it ‘love,’ using the Greek word agape –which means specifically the self-giving kind of love.  In fact, in the fourth chapter of the first letter of John, the proclamation is made that “God is love.”   So that’s what made Jesus divine –the way he loved.

It wasn’t the power to create, or unfathomable wisdom he possessed.  It wasn’t omnipresence or omnipotence that characterized the life of Jesus.  Instead, he was revealed to be God when he gave himself away for the sake of others.  As Paul says, he didn’t work for his own pleasure; but instead he invested in the pleasure of others, so they could be built up.  God, possessing all power, could have forced us to become something else –but instead there was divine patience.  Patience with our weakness.  And forgiveness for our sin.

So in the grand act of the Christmas event, God took on our weakness to become our sibling.  And the gift he offered wasn’t just stuff or a lesson. It wasn’t some pretty disguise for, or escape from, our ordinary lives.  Instead it was a living and breathing invitation to a new way of being human: to allow our hearts to be moved to be more like the heart of God.  The invitation of Christmas is to be transformed to a people of divine love, like Jesus.  The good news of the incarnation is that we can be just like God in the way that matters most –in the way we love.  We too can receive the power to endure and encourage.  We too can welcome those who are weaker than ourselves.  We too can welcome each other as peers, even in the same way that Christ welcomed us.  And as we were received just as we are: with our gifts and graces, as well as our sins and our brokenness.  So too may we hear the call of Christmas: to receive the truth of others, and the gift they bring into this world as a good and precious treasure.

Brothers and sisters, we’ve been in a season of celebration for some time now.  But it’s not just a passing moment of pleasurable experiences that will be over in a day; but instead a whole door-way of revelation is being opened to us.  Yes, Christ-inspired celebrations have power to build us up and change us forever.  When we encounter the love of God in human form, we’re confronted with our own true nature.  And there in that moment of revelation, we’ll discover we’re still made in the image of our Creator.  We’re children of the One, true God.  We’re siblings with God’s only Son, because we can love powerfully.  We give make the lives of those around us better.

And this is the wonder we seek in our smaller pursuits of Christmas: to be the gift worth celebrating.  It’s the truth we all hope for but lack the courage to actually believe and live into: that we’re already worth of the best gift of love. That we don’t need an excuse to celebrate, because life already abounds with opportunities for wonder and thanksgiving.  Therefore we don’t need to pretend to be, or try to be, some perfect kind of family together that’s always happy and functional.  Instead we can recognize the already huge influence we’ve had in building one another up.  We’ve all taught one another something, and shown signs of support.  We’ve helped one another endure and grow –even if it was sometimes begrudgingly.

Therefore, as you go out to your Christmas celebrations, which are bound not to last, go with the power and the encouragement of the welcoming love you’ve received and now hold.  Share that with others so that the world might continue its history of transformation and renewal.

Let us pray and give thanks.